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The vortex
Sometimes it seems to me like the particular combination of capitalism, pop culture and technology acts as a coordinated, passive-aggressive, three-pronged approach to ruining many people's lives. Roughly, technology is mesmerizing, pop culture is distracting, and credit cards muscle people into debt. Part of the purpose of this discussion is to debate these statements; but another part, the one that I'm more interested in, and more confused by, is: how important is this? Am I obsessing over a superficial problem? Or does this run deep, engendering a feeling of alienation and degradation at a personal level? In short, is the world really going down the drain, or is the vortex all smoke and mirrors?
I would say that the problem is quite real, and not superficial.  Before we leap into decisions about whether the world is going down the drain, though, we probably need to dwell on the nature of the problem.  You say that technology is mesmerizing, pop culture is distracting, and credit cards muscle people into debt; but you could just as well say that pop culture is mesmerizing, technology is distracting, and credit cards muscle people into debt; or that credit cards themselves are distracting.  The shift from 'capitalism' to 'credit cards' also suggests that you're searching for a solid cause in this hall of mirrors.  (Just as we probably can't say the that capitalism is the cause, even credit cards seem to predate the configuration you're indicating.)  In other words, this characterization is fit for the evening news, but maybe not precise enough to let us understand the problem.

I think you're trying to get at an account of the specific configuration of consumer capitalism in our time.  Your post suggests to me that the salient features are (a) the psychological effects of consumer goods and (b) the omnipresence of credit cards and other credit-like instruments, such as ATM cards, that encourage a different pattern of spending from cash.  I think contemporary consumer goods, with their promise to virtualize everything, glorify the commodity fetish in a way that even Marx might not have been able to imagine.  I guess the exemplary products would be video games, movies on DVD, or smartphones.  (Although I disagree with some of the particular attacks on the iPhone that other users have posted here, the iPhone and its predecessor the iPod are probably among the examples that best capture what is particular in the contemporary retail market.)  I would be interested to think about the particular appeal of these increasingly virtual goods and its possible relation to the contemporary economy.

My sketch doesn't amount to a theory yet, and I suspect there are some well-formulated accounts available.  But I wanted to suggest the direction such a theory might take.

What I like particularly in your post is the notion that there is something passive-aggressive about this configuration.  The vortex is also a nice figure for the feelings of a consumer who hasn't found his or her way out of this mess.
Thanks, Jeremy, for your reply. This definitely helps with getting started with what is obviously an infinite topic.
Here are another thought and a half; more a continuation of the original post than a reaction to Jeremy's.

First of all, just to make it clear that this discussion isn't intended for curmudgeons only... Apropos pop culture, I love Parliament. And apropos distractions, I find Wagner very distracting.

As a possible direction, different from the one emphasized by Jeremy, I wanted to mention the sanctity of the death bed. I imagine the death bed of the past as a place of elegance -- modest elegance in some cases, opulent elegance in others, but either way, a place expressive of sombriety and significance. Today, it's a different story. Here in the West, the birthday boy lies in a squalid room with a television surrounded by machinery, plastic tubing, needles, monitors... It takes a Saul Bellow to find poetic beauty in such chaos.

But then, a relative of mine owes his life to medical miracles...

But doctors routinely do heinous things too...
Thanks for your interesting post, Ishay.  I'm not sure exactly which kind of connection you have in mind with the earlier post, but I'll respond anyway.  If the connection is simply a general story of decline, then I'm not sure how productive this can be (except, as you say, for curmudgeons, of which I am sometimes, unavoidably, one).  But I'll take a guess and say you might be illustrating a particular sense of a withdrawal of cultural sources of value, for which, maybe, we have only the compensation of certain distractions that you named before.  As arbitrary as deathbed practices may be, they are an occasion for social ritual in most cultures, and I think it would be reasonable to imagine that these kind of rituals make society possible, partly by representing society to itself: they establish, as a poetry professor of mine used to put it, the possibility of communication between persons.  The values they bear may be invented or at least historically contingent, but this doesn't make them less important.

What this reminds me of is the sense of cultural crisis that modernist poetry registers and often tries to negotiate.  Whatever story one tells -- whether it's about 19th-century industrialization and urbanization, European war, loss of religious values, etc. -- the poets were, I think, noticing that what had seemed like stable sources of value for European and American society were now appearing unavailable or even untenable.  T. S. Eliot, for instance, tries in his early poems to imagine new ways of producing value.  (Like many of the modernists, he thus had a strongly conservative tendency, and in the later work I think it's fair to say that he fell back on high-church Anglicanism as a source of value and cultural prestige.)

About the deathbed, I'm strongly reminded of William Carlos Williams' poem "Tract," with which you might already be familiar.  It's under copyright and too long to quote, but it begins

I will teach you my townspeople
How to perform a funeral
--

It goes on to give particular instructions in what I would call decorum; there are some marvelous lines.  (Here too, one thinks of a conservative poet, Yeats, who was very concerned with poetic decorum.  Williams, though, is evidently not invested in recuperating traditions that would no longer serve, and certainly not in Yeats's kind of mystification.)

I don't know how well these poets can serve in the current cultural crisis, if there is one.  I don't mean to say that things are the same today as they were a century ago, which is why I think it's important to describe and theorize what, in particular, you might think is the matter.  But perhaps it is possible to bring another period's writings to bear on the contemporary situation.

***

About the end of your post I have little to offer, except to say that this vortex of "but then ... but ..." risks leading to the position in which we wave our hands and say, "things are complicated," and walk away.  This is usually the way Hollywood's "social problem films" turn out nowadays.
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Latest Post: July 26, 2009 at 6:46 AM
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