27 November, 2008

Buy Nothing Day: On Shopping

Shopping is punishment. That is not to say that it is unpleasurable; quite the opposite. Shopping intoxicates on every level. It is pleasure to the point of torture. Busy high streets, with their chaotic, human trajectories, or department stores, with their exotic smells, are settings for dreams, for tragic stories of addiction and debt.

We access shopping, as an experience, via the pornographic visual regime of the high street, with its endless succession of perfect, gleaming surfaces and moments, which promises orgiastic adventure (without commitment or risk), narcotic pleasure (without cease or exhaustion).

Shopping is not only abandon, but abandonment, of fear and restraint, but chiefly, of need; for ‘shopping’ is all that is unnecessary. Unlike a trip to ‘buy new socks’ or ‘replace my iron’ shopping does not legitimate itself by successful acquisition.

It is something we do. In French we ‘faire le shopping’, ‘do shopping’ (or even better ‘make shopping’), with all that that suggests of activity. Shopping is a practice. It is the practice of which consumerism is the culture of which advertising is the language. Shopping is aimlessness, shamelessness, wandering, drifting, chance encounter, glamour, luxury, selfishness, frivolity.

The objective of shopping is not to buy something, but to buy anything, to be in a state of readiness to purchase. Like all pleasures, it is founded in anticipation. Indeed one gets a double helping of it; anticipating first going shopping and then the shopping itself. In that sense, it is pure. It is a state of mind, or rather of emotion, in which rational decision-making plays a supporting role.

To shop is to navigate an emotional landscape, which requires a sensitive internal compass: ‘Where do I feel like going now? How do I want to feel?’ The places where things can be bought take on the characteristics of uppers or downers. This shoe shop gives me a feeling of energy, that book shop boosts my self-esteem, this clothes shop exults me, that one chills me out.

Shopping reflects its emotional idiom. It is an appetite that creates a hunger. One is consumed, consumes. The inverse is also true. Not to lust is not to live (or at least not to have meaning). Shopping without making a purchase is so draining, because it is unconsummated.

If, in practice, one seems to be like a blue whale, pacific, beautiful, surfing the krill, for sustenance, in truth to shop one obeys a remorseless, shark-like logic, impelling one into ravenous perpetual forward motion. Shop until you drop; buy until you die.

Purchases extend the emotional experience beyond the duration of the shopping expedition. One purchases, grips, possesses not a watch or a hair product, but a feeling. Marketers and advertisers trading in suggestion, implication and deferred meaning, know this well. In one of my favourite films, a (rather disturbed) character dismisses therapy as selling you back to yourself; and he’s right in a sense.

Who does not need to know ourselves better, love themselves more? This truth is twisted and returned to us in the clever description of shopping as ‘retail therapy’, whereby we can become better acquainted with ourselves, or at least a fantasy of ourselves, an image, rather like that cast by J.K. Rowling’s Mirror of Erised1, which reflects one’s desires.

Advertising is rich in the metaphor of reflection and revelation of self-knowledge, promising that we will come to know (and love) ourselves better through our next purchase. In this way shopping combines the carnal with the spiritual. Purchase transmutes the emotional experience into the physical object to be savoured again into the future; indeed, it sacralises the mundane space of everyday life, with the treasure of the shopping world. Shopping becomes a day’s work, a performance, an act of heroism.

And though shopping exhausts (literally uses up, burns up, consumes) mind and body, present and/or future finances, even finally itself as an experience (hence, one can be ‘shopped out’ or ‘spent’), that pair of jeans or bag you bought earlier holds the promise of restoration, renewal, revitalisation, resurrection. World without end, amen.