Friday, April 5, 2013

The Metaphysics of Consumerism

Earlier this week while driving through Austin I saw an intriguing sign by the side of the road. It read “UNDERGROUND: Metaphysical VW repair.” “VW” stands for Volkswagen of course, and a grizzled old hippy with a long grey beard was standing in front of a shabby garage, waiting for battered old camper vans to pull up that he might lay his healing hands upon them. Just down the street was a strip joint, a run-down motel, a Korean shopping center and the bar where Janis Joplin was discovered forty odd years ago. Yes: I was on the funky side of town, where poor folk, hippy burnouts and middle class boys and girls who are temporarily slumming it while harboring dreams of becoming famous artists do their groovy thing, man.

But, I wondered, what might this “metaphysical VW repair” entail? Would the grizzled hippy strip naked and join hands with other naked hippies in a love circle around a crippled VW bug, chanting mantras until it was fixed? Were homeopathic herbs involved? Would they read from The Avesta, the holy book of the Zoroastrians? Would the hippy wave a selenite crystal over the engine, thus imbuing the injured mechanism with cosmic energy?

Or would he just open the hood and tinker about with the same tools as everybody else, and only once he  was done retreat to the back to listen to The Thirteenth Floor Elevators (and just maybe inhale on an aromatic cigarette of the sort you roll yourself?) I suspect the latter. Metaphysical repair is the same kind of repair as any other kind of repair. Only the branding is different.

And speaking of branding, further down the street I saw a huge billboard featuring a photograph of a middle-aged white man with dreadlocks. He looked a bit like the lead singer of the awful heavy metal band Korn and had an appropriately 90s grunge-style logo: David Komie- The Attorney That Rocks!

So is Mr. Komie fighting cosmic injustice, or helping refugees? No, he’s a personal injuries man. If a hippy gets injured at work then, for a percentage, Komie will sue the ass off the employer. (But what if the employer is also a hippy? Now that would be a quandary.) In short he’s exactly the same as every other lawyer, only HE’S GOT DREADLOCKS.  A quick Google search revealed that he is also shopping a reality TV show around. So he wants to be famous too.

Hm, I thought. There’s a pattern developing here in the Bohemian side of town. The pattern of course was that almost everything was EXACTLY THE SAME as everywhere else in the city, only with dreadlocks or beards or tattoos. For instance, not far from Mr. Komie’s poster is an area called North Loop. Here I once saw a man walking in the street with no shoes- extremely daring I’m sure you’ll agree. Somebody else had glued Star Wars figures to his balcony- how subversive!

Anyway the interesting thing about this epicenter of the alternative lifestyle is that it is completely lacking in radical theaters, galleries and revolutionary dens, etc. Rather the streets are lined with shops selling stuff: clothes, groceries, entertainment products, and of course coffee. Now admittedly the café isn’t called Starbucks, but it’s peddling the same black stimulant and it’s not any cheaper. “Vintage” stores are filled with items scavenged from the city’s estate sales and thrift shops, and then via a bit of verbal magic and effective staging they are rendered 2 to 3 to 4 times as expensive and sold to middle class liberals instead of poor Hispanics, hillbillies and old ladies on social security. Bohemians love to turn a profit.

And thus it seems that in contemporary America, the “alternative” is almost identical to the “mainstream.” Austin is not unique in this regard- all big cities have Bohemian zones where social life revolves primarily around spending money on objects and maybe going to the cinema now and then, just as it does in air-conditioned mega malls across the land. It’s consumerism, only metaphysically purified by geography and a spot of branding.

But is it purified? I’m not so sure. Could it be that the same set of desires that spawned the phenomenon of the post-modern taco shack for artists, not workers, also gave birth to that most bizarre of 21st century status markers: the “organic vegetable”? Humans have always loved to set themselves above one another, and this has become increasingly difficult in an age of plenty. Whereas once upon a time only the rich could afford to eat meat or take a foreign holiday, now almost everybody can. This causes anxiety among the privileged who wish to remind others, and themselves, of their elite status.

Hence the new metaphysics not of VW repair but rather of consumerism. Via a set of rituals, symbols and incantations the mundane is transformed, and thus cool people can do essentially the same things and have much the same stuff as everybody else, but still feel superior.