What is it that spurs the growth of our consumer society more than anything else? What is it that pushes people in modern technological society to constantly search for new goods to accumulate and new services to experience? The logical answer would be that as societies develop their industrial base, a certain level of prosperity is generated among significant numbers of people, such that they have the purchasing power to buy a lot of what they need and want. In other words, prosperity gives people the opportunity to make themselves economically comfortable. In addition, advertising stimulates appetites among people so that they will buy many goods and services they might not have thought of purchasing on their own.
Although this sounds like a reasonable explanation, perhaps there is another less obvious force working here. It gets back to a less obvious theme that I have explored throughout my column. As modern industrial societies develop, they fill our fields of experience with overstimulation and with understimulation. The vacuum of understimulation is actually what people seek to attain. People want to become transcendent figures that use technologically-created environments to rise above the organic perishability of nature and to live a seemingly eternal life in an experiential vacuum. The tension pockets of overstimulation are created as a result of all the different waste products – noise, crowding, air pollution, soil pollution - that are produced in trying to create a safe vacuum environment. Also, some tension-pocket stimulation is used to create the kicks that jolt a person out of the numbness that is experienced in a supposedly safe vacuum environment. Experiences like modern pop music, drugs, motorcycles, free love.
In our living environment of sensory distortion, people become numb from exposure to vacuums and jaded or emotionally hardened from exposure to tension-pockets. Neither one of these can be considered a comfortable state of mind. And yet, unfortunately, they are an intrinsic part of life in a modern technological living environment. This is where our consumerism comes in. We purchase goods and services to give us sensory balance in a sensorily distorted world. If we are experiencing too much numbness from the vacuum, we can purchase kicks services or experiences of overstimulation to jolt us out of our numbness. We can purchase peace services or experiences of understimulation to help us to retreat from the tension pockets of modern technological society waste products. Services like yoga classes, experiences like vacation retreats. Or we can purchase pleasurable consumer items of whatever kind in order to use the accumulation of figures as a sort of surrogate grounding. Things can’t be a real grounding the way a more traditional living environment or natural environment can be. Our modern manufactured products are just free-floating figures in our modern technological living environment. But the accumulation of enough of these figures, a collection of these figures, can give a person the illusion of grounding. Of course, the illusion is stimulated again by each new purchase, but because it is an illusion and not reality, it doesn’t last. And so another purchase has to be made to keep the illusion alive. And another. And another.
During the course of industrialization, people worked so hard to create a transcendent reality of an eternal vaccum that would help them rise above organic grounding and the dangers of organic perishability. And then, now that they have created such a living environment in modern technological society, they have started to experience the dangerous effects of living too long in a vacuum environment. The numbness that people experience is a symptom of something much deeper. In a vacuum, all matter is subject to entropy – the random distribution of atoms throughout the space of the vacuum. However, entropy operates on a psychological level as well. People psychologically tend to pull apart, to fall apart mentally, if they stay too long in a vacuum. And that is why people today are looking for phenomena in which they can find some of the benefits of organic grounding. Phenomena that are readily available in their fields of experience. An ongoing accumulation of discrete figures can equal a continual flow of organic grounding in the minds of these people.
But things can only create a temporary illusion of connection and grounding. Things are inanimate entities that can’t commune with people or provide them with organic grounding. And all the services that money can buy cannot properly calibrate the mental state of contentment, stimulation and security that a person can get from a connection to organic grounding. A person can purchase kicks experiences to jolt him out of numbness, or he can buy certain more temporary organic experiences like a good meal, a good massage or a good trip to a seaside beach resort to have a temporary experience of grounding. But it doesn’t last, and then the person starts to experience the effects of entropy again in the vacuum that he had always thought was the ideal desirable living environment. There is no doubt that the current epidemic of obesity is caused by a need to find the stimulation and rootedness of grounding in whatever phenomena are available. Food does not provide a variety of touch stimulation the way a variety of bodies does in free love. But perhaps we can say that the mouth and the stomach become internal surfaces that people use today for touching elements of the organic world.
Because a lot of the food that people enjoy eating today is rich in sugar, carbohydrates and fat, people get obese. So inappropriate eating is not a good solution for people looking for grounding in our sensorily distorted modern technological living environment. Nor is the general obsession today for purchasing more and more new goods and services. Consumerism is not the answer to the deep need of people today to find organic grounding for security and stimulation. The question is what is there left today that can give a person real grounding.
The answer is that there are still pieces left of traditional living environments and natural environments that are available for our everyday lives. There are still neighborhoods with older homes as well as forest preserves, national parks, and other isolated pieces of nature relatively close to home. These are good places for people to spend time communing with organic grounding. Filling one’s home with pieces of more traditional traditional furniture in which there is more intricate carving or intricate traditional designs can be a help. As can plenty of art and wall-hangings. Grounding can be found in bonding with people in deeper relationships: lovers, family, friends, members of a group or community. It isn’t as easy to form and maintain such relationships without the template of a traditional living environment, but people have to work at it. And as I have discussed in previous articles, there is the experiencing of the humanities: the art, music, literature and philosophy of our collective past and present. Particularly works created in previous eras when people were still more connected to organic grounding. Such works allow us to mentally enter a different time when people were not floating in an experiential vacuum. There are also the artistic creations and the oral traditions of those more traditional tribal cultures that still exist. These cultural expressions show the organic grounding provided within tribal societies.
All of these can help to act as an antidote to the unsatisfying addiction created by modern consumerism. I am not trying to imply that nice things and enjoyable services should never be considered an important component of a good life. However, one has to keep in mind that most of these things and services today are produced by technological processes that are part of the modern technological living environment that creates the loss of organic grounding that pushes people into consumer addictions. One most always keep sight of what is being lost as a result of the consequences of modern technological production processes and make an effort to connect with whatever sources of organic grounding that remain. One does not need to become an ascetic in order to fight off consumerism and its effects. But one does have to try and make sure that the products and services that he obtains and uses truly add to and enrich his life and don’t simply feed an endless unsatisfiable need to fill a void and to minimize sensory distortion.
(c) 2013 Laurence Mesirow