Saturday, December 29, 2012

Homo homini lumpus

"Man is a lump to man." In the original (Plautus) it was lupus (wolf). But as I typed the phrase into the Google search box, my fingers followed their well-worn path for what follows the "l-u..." It makes more sense than "wolf" anyhow.

I stumbled systematically last night upon a lovely article by Robert Cluley and Stephen Dunne, titled "From Commodity Fetishism to Commodity Narcissicism." It's in a journal called Marketing Theory. Who knew that the last refuge of Marxian/Freudian analysis would be marketing theory? Cluley and Dunne investigate the dilemma concerning the "enlightened" consumer who, knowing only too well the social and environmental conditions under which the commodity is produced, purchases proceeds to act as if he or she didn't know. After a preliminary discussion of Marx's and Freud's analysis of fetishism, the authors settle on Freud's concept of narcissism as offering a way to reconcile the objective and subjective analyses. Toward the end of the article, they sum up their analysis with an allegory about the daily bread:
This daily bread, for the commodity fetishist, that is to say the rational consuming subject of classical economics, is simply one useful and exchangeable object among others which may or may not be chosen for consumption. The daily bread, in the Marxist analysis, is still the same hunger satisfying object, of course, albeit a hunger satisfying object that cannot be isolated to utility or exchangeability alone but must rather have its utility and exchangeability explained in terms of the labour of baking and the social position of the baker. The bread, for the Freudian fetishist, offers insight into the subject that desires it – this subject relates to bread as an object of desire and in so doing attributes to it a meaning that cannot be reduced to function or subsistence. The commodity narcissist, finally, sees the bread as a potential expression of his or her idealized self, an expression that must be denied to all other potentially self-expressing selves. At the same time, far from acting as if they are unaware of the social relations that have produced the bread, relations that they lay claim to find morally reprehensible, the narcissist enjoys their ability to act reprehensibly through consumption. Whichever way we look at the bread, therefore, we have to have recourse to a certain model of the consuming subject – a subject that certainly has economically isolatable characteristics but just as certainly cannot be reduced to these economic characteristics alone.
"The narcissist enjoys their ability to act reprehensibly through consumption." What is "reprehensible" here is not consuming the bread or even consuming the bread while ignoring the working conditions and social position of the baker but, in essence, "giving vent to the lurking 'temptation to to ill treat his neighbour.'" Although this might seem like a far-fetched interpretation when presented as nakedly as presented here, it acquires a great deal more plausibility in the context of the paradoxical disconnect between consumer attitudes and consumer behaviorHypocrite consommateur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!

Although I hate to make things even more complicated than Cluley and Dunne suggest, there are a couple of directions that I would like to take their research further. One of those directions involves asking whether the narcissism that they (and Freud) identify is intrinsic to human nature as such or is a specific symptom of Western culture and modernity. Alf  Hornborg's (2006) discussion of "Animism, fetishism and objectivism as strategies for knowing (or not knowing) the world" offers a convenient starting point for such an inquiry, especially considering his own enduring focus on fetishism. Cluley and Dunne cite an earlier work by Hornborg in their paper.

The second thought has to do with the mythological status of any specimen story, which would of course include Freud's castration complex and "His Majesty the Baby." Shoshana Felman's (1983) "Beyond Oedipus: The Specimen Story of Psychoanalysis" makes some fascinating suggestions about what lies beyond wish fulfillment and the compulsion to repeat, say, narcissistic consumption, i.e., that "the narrative strategy of demystification takes place only through a new narrative mythification. In urging us to go beyond the myth, Freud also tells us  that beyond the myth there is, forever, but another myth." Or, in terms specifically of the Homo homini lupus,  the alleged aggression may be usefully considered as a signifier rather than an instinct. Ultimately, the consumer's desire (and, ergo, aggression) has no object (thus its interminability). "Desire, a function central to the whole of human experience, is the desire of nothing nameable" (Lacan).

The above might sound intimidating in the condensed form that I've stated it here but what I'm getting at is really just a distinction between some presumably primal instinct of aggression and a culturally-specific discourse of aggression. That is to say, the "wolf" is a tale we tell ourselves about ourselves -- albeit a tale that occasionally manifests itself in wolfish behavior. What I'm getting at is that it's not a question of "human nature" versus some ethical/ecological discourse but of competing discourses, one of which is "privileged" in some way that it may be possible to discern. It might even be that the ethical/ecological discourse inadvertently reinforces or intensifies the commodity narcissism one (kind of like the church inveighing against fornication).

This last point is consistent with the research finding by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler that refutations of myths are ineffectual and even tend to "backfire" in reinforcing the misperceptions. Nyhan and Reifler cite Mark Twain's quip that “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Of course Mark Twain never said any such thing.

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