Ikea is a Swedish company that has had incredible success worldwide. In an article in the online newsletter, the Robin Report (Jan. 14, 2015), Warren Shoulberg discusses the secret of this success. By creating affordable furniture that is assembled by the customer, Ikea has made it permissible for people to easily dispose of furniture should they have to move geographically, should they move up economically or should their tastes change. The furniture is not meant to last forever. A person no longer has to be married to furniture that he can’t replace. The same principle applies to the houses which Ikea produces. Again, the customer assembles the house himself.
Ikea has acted as an inspiration for many stores in other kinds of merchandise like clothing. Stores like H & M and Zara create clothes that aren’t meant to be durable and that are relatively inexpensive. It allows customers to change their clothing look more often, and thus, supposedly, to be more physically attractive.
For many people, there is a preference to not even acquire books as things anymore. It is much lighter to acquire a book as an e-book and read it on your nook or kindle. Then you don’t have to worry about storing a lot of books in your residence. For many people, the old appreciation of books as valuable, well-made and even decorative objects, sometimes with beautiful illustrations, has long since disappeared.
This does not mean that there are no longer many people who search for quality in certain categories of products. In previous articles, I have pointed out that many people accumulate products in order to cling to some kind of tangible material things and, thus, to defend themselves against the emptiness, the entropy found in the experiential vacuums of modern technological living environments. But this new twist in the accumulation of disposable products represents a new kind of motivation for today’s consumers, and it is something that is definitely worth exploring.
A disposable product is one that lasts much less time than the traditional product made for that particular product category. It falls apart or wears out more easily. As a phenomenon, it goes from being a highly defined figure to one that is eaten away by the disintegrating influences of entropy. It is a phenomenon that moves in the direction of emptiness, of a vacuum.
So if people have been accumulating figure products, to bundle them together as an island to which they can cling while floating in the experiential vacuum of modern technological living environments, why would they want to obtain figure products that fall apart into a vacuum state, and that can’t provide a long-term surrogate grounding for them?
This leads to a discussion of what aspects of the accumulated figure products provide people today with a sense of surrogate grounding. If it is not the solid durability of products that protects against the emptiness and entropy of the experiential vacuum, what does protect? First of all, as has been previously noted, the accumulation of figure products is a very imperfect protection, because even many figure products don’t create the sense of pull or gravity that being anchored in a more traditional organic environment does. So people desperately keep trying to accumulate more and more figure products in the vain hope of creating the kind of grounded connection found in a more natural living environment. And each time the addition of a new product fails to provide the difference that allows a person to feel a long term grounding in his collection of figure products, the person becomes numb to and disconnected from his new possession. Furthermore, there comes a point where a person’s residence runs out of room for new products. The person gets swallowed up by his large collection of figures rather than grounded in them.
But the person doesn’t give up on trying to ground himself in his products, because it is the only apparent option that remains for him. So the person continues to obtain products that he can dispose of, because in truth his sensation of temporary grounding lies in the acquisition of a new product rather than holding onto it for a long period of time. It is the equivalent of a kick or a temporary high that provides him with the sensation of the grounding for which he is searching, before it disappears. And by having products that are disposable and therefore cheaper, he can more easily get rid of them to provide space for other new articles. It is like a drug addiction where there is no true sustainable level of satisfaction.
In truth, it is the active acquisition of figure products that seems to provide a temporary sensation of grounding in our modern experiential vacuum, rather than simply holding onto them, clinging to them. It doesn’t matter whether the products are only going to last for a short time, because the sensation of grounding obtained from them is also only of short duration. It is the novel aspect of the new possessions that leaves a new imprint on the person and temporarily jolts him out of his sense of emptiness.
At the same time, because there is a relatively rapid turnover within categories of products, there are more and more transitions between products that provide brief periods of experiential vacuums. When the old sofa falls apart, it usually has to be taken out of the house or apartment, before a new one is installed in its place. That is a physical vacuum moment. Sometimes the vacuum moment comes from simply switching emotional attachment from the broken-down product to the new one. Buying a new sweater to replace an old worn-out sweater. The accumulation of these numbness moments results in a growing need to fight them off with more and more experiences of surrogate grounding through the accumulation of more and more new products. Hence, there develops an increasingly frantic and frenetic pattern of consumption.
In the long run, this pattern of disposable products bleeds into our relationships. When there are too many isolated phenomena floating around in our field of experience, we blur them together to create an artificial mental grounding. Different phenomena can blur back and forth into each other. In this case, disposable products like Ikea act as an implicit model for how we deal with the people in our lives. More and more people fall into having Ikea connections with people. In the area of romance, this means Ikea boyfriends and girlfriends. And because there is little grounding from organic environments that can act as a template for solid durable relationships, the Ikea relationships don’t offer a sense of secure grounding within them. People become disconnected, bored and numb within the relationships and try to stimulate them to life with the jolts of conflict. Either the numbness or else the static from the conflicts or both leads to the disposing of the relationships. And as people develop an accumulated sense of numbness from the vacuum spaces between the periods of the relationships, people can end up going through more and more relationships more quickly to fight the numbness. So a supposedly solid commitment ends up becoming one more disposable product.
The application of Ikea purchases as a model for modern relationships fits well with a previous explanation that was developed in this column for growing sexual freedom today. I have discussed how people today have many lovers at least partly as a substitute for the sensory variety of natural living environments that is of course missing in modern technological living environments. One human body disconnected from the template of a natural living environment may contribute to new physical sensation, but it doesn’t offer a sense of secure grounding. So with each new lover, a person gets more sensory variety in his life, but, at the same time, a greater sense of the lack of meaningful grounding available in the emotional commitment to one person.
We need more durable furniture, more durable clothing and more durable relationships, if we are going to maintain a durable organic human society. The rapid ongoing turnover of products and people in our lives, even if it is an attempt to stimulate us to life, can ultimately lead to the disintegration of human society. Ultimately, the durability of products and people relationships in our external world helps to maintain the organic cohesion of our senses of self in our inner world. When everything in our external world becomes transient, we become transient within ourselves. We reinvent ourselves over and over to adjust to the new circumstances resulting from the shifting Ikea phenomena in our surroundings. We end up losing our core sense of self.
On the other hand, the gradual change created by evolving organic flowing blendable continual stimuli is an important part of life that is necessary to stimulate us to life and to provide new configurations of stimuli and new experiential surfaces on which to leave new and different organic imprints. Imprints that can give us novel rich vibrant experiences and that can form the basis of our individual surrogate immortalities and our collective group surrogate immortalities in preparation for death. But this gradual organic change has to be balanced out with a sense of continuity, a sense of firm principles and material order that gives us fundamental conceptual figures that we can focus on, fundamental conceptual figures planted firmly in psychological grounding. Basil Davidson in his book The African Genius (1969) talks about the importance of the equilibrium between continuity and change among African tribes. We in modern technological society have lost this equilibrium. Technological change is occurring so rapidly. We are being pummeled by the defined discrete stimuli from data and from disposable products. The danger is that the loss of continuity among the phenomena in our living environment will contribute to a loss of psychological continuity in ourselves and a loss of social continuity in our human groups and ultimately to our personal and collective disintegration as organisms. And, of course, with some of this disintegration already happening, it is no wonder that some people are already embracing the organizing principles of cyborgs and robots. We have to find some way to bring back some of the aspects of natural living environments into our lives, if we want to survive as humans.
(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow