The Conspicuous Consumption of a Shopaholic

When my Mum watched the screen adaptation of Sophie Kinsella’s novel Confessions of a Shopaholic for the first time, she exclaimed: “Oh my God! That is so you!” And she was right: I love shopping and I could immediately identify and sympathize with Becky Bloomwood, Kinsella’s protagonist, when I read the books.

But Becky and me are not the only ones. There are a lot of shopaholics out there and sociologist Thorstein Veblen came up with a good explanation for what we are doing: He called it conspicuous consumption.

The idea is that in pre-capitalist societies you defined yourself by what you were doing. But then capitalism kicked in and your job was no longer a sufficient source of self-definition. This is why people started consuming goods and defining themselves in the act of consumption rather than in the act of production. 

I just re-watched the movie Confessions of a Shopaholic and they pick up this idea quite literally when Becky’s father offers to sell his beloved caravan in order to make up for his daughter’s debts. She rejects this proposal, arguing that the caravan is what defines her father. It doesn’t matter whether it is a good bottle of 18-year-old Scotch, a Louis Vuitton bag, or a can of Red Bull: you always engage in acts of conspicuous consumption and define yourself by what you are drinking, wearing, or driving. 

In 1999, famous photographer Andreas Gursky took a photo of a 99 cent store playing on Karl Marx’s* distinction between use value and exchange value. Although the exchange value of every article in this store is 99 cent, the use value can vary. You can decide whether you want to buy a bar of chocolate or a bag of crisps, depending on your immediate longings. If you fancy something sweet, then the bar of chocolate’s use value will be slightly higher than the bag of crisp’s one. When you’re starving the use value of a bag of crisps will even be extremely higher than the use value of a diamond although the latter’s exchange value is so much higher. Along these lines, it is also interesting to note that Gursky’s photo sold for 3.34 million dollars despite it being a representation of a place filled with goods of a very low exchange value.

See what I’m getting at? Becky, me and our fellow shopaholics consume because we attach a certain value – or rather: an expectation – to goods. We want the perfect pencil skirt to get us the job in a job interview, we want the statement necklace to get the attention of the boy we like, and we adore a simple coffee mug because it was the present of a very good friend. And as Freud already knew: the more obstacles between yourself and the object of your desire, the more you long for it. This is why exclusivity is so important when it comes to brands and why a lot of women spend ages on a waiting list for a Birkin Bag.

But just as French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan argued, the fulfillment of desire can never be achieved. Whenever you find the perfect pair of shoes you feel a short moment of jouissance, i. e. the feeling of perfect bliss and the illusion that you are now a perfect human being, but you will soon recognize that the shoes cannot make up for your imperfections and do not change who you are… which is why you continue consuming. Shopaholic Becky Bloomwood also alludes to this theory when she tells her love interest, Luke Brandon, that she feels so good after a successful shopping tour but that this feeling quickly dissolves and then she has to do it again. 

In the movie, however, Becky Bloomwood can actually stop shopping and walks around in borrowed dresses and last season heels in the end. You wonder how she did it? Well, she found love. This is the problematic ideology behind the shopaholic narrative: as soon as you find real love you are actually whole again and can stop engaging in acts of conspicuous consumption. Now your partner defines you and not your designer purse.

Luckily for me, I know that the original Becky (of the novels) did not stop consuming bags, shoes and jewelry after meeting Luke Brandon. This is why I will always have a good excuse for shopping sprees: I just need this new (enter whichever object you like) because it is so me!

 

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* The mention of Karl Marx is in dedication to a good friend who e-mailed me a page of Marx’s capital for my last birthday. To me the use value of this page will always be much higher than its exchange value. 😉

Fifty Shades Darker in Numbers

Wondered why I haven’t posted anything for a few days now? Ok, ok, I confess: I was reading the sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey, creatively entitled Fifty Shades Darker. But I wasn’t reading it for fun. No, seriously, I was studiously counting in order to be able to present you with some very interesting facts and numbers about our beloved “mommy porn”.

  • In Fifty Shades Darker, Christian Grey has 23 orgasms in 8 days.
  • That makes 2,875 orgasms per day.
  • This adds up to approximately 80,500,000 sperms.
  • This means if every sperm would achieve to fertilize an egg cell, the sperm ejaculated by Christian Grey within 8 days could re-populate Germany.
  • Ana Steele burns about 2,400 calories due to sexual activities.
  • This is about the amount of calories of 4 Big Macs.
  • Setting the beginning of Ana’s menopause at age 50 and allowing her 2,5 sexual encounters per day, she will have sex 26462,5 times over the course of her reproductive years (average: 3000).

Jealous, anyone?

On a Toaster, Wordsworth, and Phallic Daffodils

“Oh, for the love of God! Shut up and just watch the movie!” 

This is a sentence that I hear rather regularly when watching a film in company. After 5 years of studying British literature and culture, my brain seems to have developed a few extra cells which instantly try to decipher the symbolic codes of movies and books and which hugely annoy other people. To me, everything becomes a riddle that wants to be solved. When I was watching Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island with a few friends, they started complaining about the poor quality of the special effects. I really put on an effort to tame my inner academic freak, who was already frantically jumping around inside my head wanting to throw film studies companions and his oversized nerd glasses at them. Yet after 15 minutes of having had to listen to them slandering Scorsese’s work, I simply had to tell them that I read the deliberate unrealism of the special effects as a comment on the intricacy of the border between reality and fiction thus reduplicating the main features of the plot in its visual representation.

Well… What can I say: They stared at me open-mouthed for about 10 seconds and then wholeheartedly continued railing against the movie.  

I certainly tend to overthink but what if I am right? What if Scorsese really intended to hint at the plot closure by making use of visual means? What if Freud was right and Hamlet really suffered from a severe oedipus complex? What if ideology critique is right and the Sherlock Holmes stories are less about the value of rational thinking than about its limitations in a western centered, logocentric, patriarchal society?

In 1967 literary critic E. D. Hirsch published his notorious book entitled The Validity of Interpretation, in which he claimed that the author had a clear intention when producing a work of art which can be decoded by the reader. The implication is that there is one valid interpretation of a work which directly mirrors the author’s intentions and which can be found out by closely studying the author.

When a friend of mine showed me a short film that she had co-produced I was over the moon when the film’s domestic setting suddenly changed and the protagonist entered a dream world filled with daffodils. I instantly had to think of William Wordsworth’s famous poem about the daffodils. It couldn’t be a coincidence that the film’s protagonist actually bears some resemblance to Wordsworth, that he talked about feelings so important to romantic poetry and that there were hundreds of daffodils surrounding him. And as this friend studied with me, I could even be quite sure that she had encountered Wordsworth’s poem at some point.

But when I wrote her that I particularly enjoyed the Wordsworth-reference, secretly thinking myself very smug for having spotted it and for successfully having decoded the film, she replied: “Ha! Isn’t it funny what people read into this?” 

This marked the birth of a great idea! My friend and I decided that I should interpret the film as I thought fit and then she would provide me with the actual story behind that short film, enabling me to finally check the validity of my interpretation. 

Here’s the film and below that you can find my short analysis. Why don’t you also have a go at speculating about what it might mean?

Toast

We encounter a young man in a rather bleak, domestic surrounding that is characterized by the chromium surfaces of his kitchen and the technical cooking devices, especially the toaster. The only allusion to nature found in this metallic world is the little snow flake engraved in an undefined metal surface.

He craves a slice of toast before going to bed. Toast is a very British kind of food and thus denotes that the film also negotiates Britishness which becomes more clear in the dream sequence. The man suddenly finds himself leaning against a wall and facing the toaster which is hardly visible as it is surrounded by daffodils. The wall has a darker and a lighter side which creates another contrast to the homogenous colouring of the kitchen sequence. According to a BBC survey William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (1804) – commonly known as “The Daffodils” –  comes on fifth place in the race for Great Britain’s favourite poem. Thus, just like toast, the poem exemplifies a sense of Britishness that is closely tied to an idealized, romanticized past, in which feelings dominate over rationality, here embodied by the toaster. Suddenly it is no longer the man in the kitchen which is – as natural being – the odd element out, but now it is the toaster which does not really fit in anymore. Also note that the protagonist defines his superiority over the toaster by indicating his creative abilities and potentials, especially the art of writing.

The film identifies this image of a colourful, peaceful past linked with Romantic, Wordsworthian ideals as an idea that is to be desired but that is simultaneously represented as a dream. The film ends with the next morning. Once again, the young man has a slice of toast, thusly accepting his existence in (and to some extent dependence on) a technological world and drawing attention to the ritualistic, passionless nature of our world, in which it is finally the toaster which actually has created something (toasted toast) but the human being can merely consume and no longer be creative anymore.

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It is very likely that my reading does not even come close to the message of the film. I might totally misunderstand it. I deliberately tried to analyse it as I understood it at the first viewing and restrained from a psychoanalytical reading that also came up to me in which the daffodils can be identified as phallic symbols metonymically representing Wordsworth’s castrated penis and his uncanny desire for the toaster, i. e. the representation of an emotionless, technical vagina dentata, which burns the toast and thus poses a danger to masculinity. This reading would invert the nature/culture opposition in which nature is commonly associated with femininity and culture with masculinity. Suddenly technological progress renders nature as masculine and feminizes culture.

Such a reading would probably have made the film’s creators fall off her chairs!

Maybe they wanted the film to be read as I did? Maybe they inscribed some phallic images into their film? Maybe someone just slept unwell from eating to much toast in the evening? Well… We’ll find out soon! So stay tuned!

Sommerloch.

Hier war es in letzter Zeit etwas ruhig, was damit zu tun hat, dass sich das Semester dem Ende neigt und ich zwar selbst nicht im Unistress bin, aber leider meine Studenten. Das bedeutet etliche mehr oder weniger panische Mails, in denen ich gebeten werde, Ideologie zu erklären, nicht vorhandene Probeklausuren zu verschicken, oder mir spontan Hausarbeitsthemen zu überlegen. All das macht mir unglaublich viel Spaß, nur leider bleibt der Blog dabei etwas auf der Strecke. Leider habe ich auch keine Zeit mehr für vollständige Sätze, weshalb ich beschlossen habe, euch mal eine Stichpunktliste über mein Leben zu präsentieren:

  • Hausarbeitsthemen in diesem Semester: “Bridget Jones meets Jane Austen: The Treatment of Conduct Books and Self-Help Literature for Women in Austen’s Novels and Bridget Jones’s Diary” (Arbeitstitel: “Bitch Behave”) und “Edward Bond’s Bingo: Representing Shakespeare as Old Man” (Arbeitstitel: “Aaaalter!”)
  • Werde hoffentlich am 30. September Mourinho und CR7 live in Action sehen! Hala Madrid!
  • Aktuelle Lektüren: 50 Shades Darker von E. L. James (sollte meiner Meinung nach eher 50 Shades of Fluffy Pink Cotton Candy heißen. Komm hol’ die Peitsche raus!) Sermons to Young Women (Verhaltensbuch für Damen des 18. Jahrhunderts. Man kann selbst heute noch einiges daraus lernen… zumindest, wenn man einen Mr. Darcy anlocken will) Liebe wird oft überbewertet von Christane Rösinger (Ein “Sachbuch” über den Mythos romantische Liebe. Im Ansatz gut, aber leider ist die Autorin der Inbegriff einer Spaßbremse… Ich überlege ihr, nach der Lektüre eine Tafel Schokolade und eine DVD mit den besten Szenen aus der britischen Sitcom Miranda zu schicken, da sie da sehen kann, wie viel Spaß das Leben bereitet, egal ob zu zweit oder alleine) Solar von Ian McEwan (Mit McEwan macht man nie etwas falsch. Solar ist eine bissige Satire über einen alternden Nobelpreisträger, dessen 5. Frau den Spieß einmal umdreht und den notorischen Fremdgeher betrügt)
  • Werde nächstes Semester an der Uni ein Seminar zu Literatur und Naturwissenschaften haben. Naturwissenschaften? Was war das nochmal??
  • Aktuelle TV-Obsession: Shoppingqueen auf VOX (daran ist einzig und allein Miss Temple von Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others schuld. Aber was kann man nicht daran mögen, anderen Mädels beim Shoppen zuzusehen? Das ist Sodas wie Schokolade ohne Kalorien: virtuelles Shopping, während man auf der Couch sitzt, Kuchen isst, und kein Geld braucht. Love it!) Miranda (nachdem Cookie von Cookie’s Wonderland mich letztes Wochenende besucht hat und wir die komplette erste Staffel geschaut haben, musste ich natürlich weiterschauen. Ich kenne zwar alle Folgen mittlerweile, aber was soll’s. Miranda ist der peinliche, tölpelhafte, in unpassenden Situationen singende, über-britische, in sozialen Situationen unbedarfte Teil von mir, den ich versuche, im Alltagsleben zu unterdrücken.)
  • Der Film Young Victoria ist sehr enttäuschend. Dafür hab ich diese Woche schon bei einer Doku über Queen Victoria und Albert geheult. Ich darf auch mal Mädchen sein!
  • Wie schon erwähnt, war Cookie hier und dieses Wochenende mit ihr war sehr lehrreich: Ich weiß jetzt, dass Frankfurter Bier aus Franken kommt, dass die MotoGP froh sein kann, dass mit Bradl wieder ein Deutscher am Start ist, weil Alex Hoffman (oder war’s Hermann?) damals ja nix gerissen hat, und dass ich beim nächsten Besuch die Justin-Bieber-Biographie in meinem Bücherregal verstecken sollte.

Das war’s auch schon von meiner Seite. Ich gehe jetzt weiter Mails beantworten. Adieu und viel Spaß mit diesem Clip aus Miranda.

Postmodern State of Mind

Recently I have engaged in some more or less heated word battles with one of my professors at university. Although I like him, admire his knowledge and appreciate his opinions, I felt rather offended by some of the things he said about cultural studies. I have started off as a literary studies student myself but lately I feel more and more fascinated by the lure of cultural studies and everything it entangles. I have fun analysing Batman, a Britney Spears video clip, Shakespeare on the internet and more (pop)cultural phenomena like these. This blog certainly proves this and I always hope that you have as much fun with it as I do.

However, my professor argued that pure postmodern thinking degrades literature and the “high arts”. What you basically think in postmodernism is that nothing has an essence anymore, nothing has meaning by itself. Instead meaning is created in acts of consumption and by means of representation. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard goes so far as to argue that we live in a hyperreality governed by simulacra in which we have lost every connection to a prior reality because the signs that structure our lives are more real to us than reality. His prime example is Disneyland which presents to be unreal and fictional just to disguise that actually it is America itself which is fictional and created by arbitrary sign systems. (Sounds a lot like The Matrix, doesn’t it? Well, it is certainly no coincidence that Morpheus has a copy of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation on his bookshelf.)

Postmodern thinking was formerly more restricted to artistic products. For example, it argued that Shakespeare as we know him is no longer the historical person Shakespeare but became “Shakespeare”, the myth. We have lost the “real” Shakespeare and everything we have is a “Shakespeare” that can take on any meaning we would like him to have: we can freely deconstruct his authorial authority (according to Roland Barthes the author is dead anyway), we can see him as an original genius and the greatest poet who ever lived, or we can see him as a cultural projection of our nostalgic desires.

Nowadays postmodernism has taken a grip on every aspect of life: love is a cultural construct, fear is a cultural construct, sex is a cultural construct. We are no longer divided into men and women, but Simone de Beauvoir has taught us that we are not born as girls/boys but raised as such. We no longer fall in love but are on a psychoanalytical quest trying to fill the void that has been left with us as soon as we entered the symbolic stage… leaving reality behind.

When my professor asked me whether I really thought that Shakespeare can be analysed in the same way as TV commercials can be analysed and whether I really thought that fear is an ideological construct, I answered yes. His next question was whether this wasn’t a very pessimistic perspective. I do not think so. To me, postmodernism doesn’t mean getting rid of all feeling and emotion but to see your life itself as a story. Once you really believe in the artificial construction of everything that surrounds you including feelings of love, friendship, or even death, it is actually quite liberating. You need a good amount of what Coleridge called “willing suspension of disbelief” in order to lead a “normal life” but it works. Heterosexuality works for me although I know that it is a social construct and I believe that there is no essential difference between the sexes. Falling in love works for me and when I fall in love I do not think about its constructedness but indulge in the feeling.

My life is a postmodern jigsaw puzzle: I chose the best constructs and assemble them in a wonderful deconstructionist bricolage and I am having a hell of a lot of fun with it!