Don’t worry, go shopping

Oil-consumerism: the conclusion of a 3-part series on Marshall McLuhan’s thought

In my last column, I discussed how our relationship to industrial oil might be looked at from Marshall McLuhan’s point of view: that is, as a medium or a technology no different than the automobiles or plastic products that rely on it. The key point about media, as McLuhan sees it, is the way that all media lead us to adopt habitual forms of thinking and behaving that take a lot of effort for us to see. In other words, we have a tendency to see media merely as tools, and to think of ourselves as having a relatively unchanging and unchangeable set of characteristics that are just innate to human beings. McLuhan says: no, human beings are always being transformed in fundamental ways, and those fundamental transformations are always tied to one “set-up” or another. For us, oil is at the heart of a very powerful set-up: the limits of what it makes possible are, in some sense, the limits of our world. We can do many things because of oil, but we’re also bound to it because giving up its use would disrupt many of the everyday habits that we take for granted so deeply that we don’t even know them as habits.

At the same time, it’s important to consider that just framing our use of oil, and the habits that that use brings about, won’t be enough to help us start thinking of ways out of the problems we face. I concluded last time by suggesting that we should also think of economics—in particular, the consumer economy—as a medium, or as a technology; as well, I cited McLuhan’s remark that “the hybrid or meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born” (Understanding Media, p. 55). In this week’s column, I’d like to use the issue of economics to think about that claim’s meaning and significance. I’ll begin with an historical example to bring us up to speed.

Go out, resume shopping!

If you’re old enough to remember the events of September 11, 2001, you probably remember George W. Bush urging Americans to go out and resume shopping. At the time I laughed at these ridiculous instructions, but over the years I came to understand how deadly serious they were. (Self-disclosure: I’m remarkably slow to pick up on things sometimes; it took me about twenty years to realize that the ‘messages’ referred to in the phrase “after these messages, we’ll be right back” were in fact the commercials, and that I was never in fact going to receive the epiphany I kept expecting to appear on television.)

And, in fact, the situation was very serious indeed: had people not resumed shopping, we would have wound up in a 2008-like situation seven years earlier, and we’d probably be in far worse trouble in 2011 than we already are.

The reason that people needed to continue shopping after September 11th is that, globally, something approximating a balance between the production and purchase of consumer goods needs to be maintained; if people stop consuming, then companies will scale back their production and other people stand to lose their jobs, which means that there will then be even fewer consumers—and so on and so forth.

…we can’t break out of this kind of economy without huge social, economic, and political disruptions…

Now, of course there’s a lot more to economics than just that. But, taking into account certain margins of variability, we can’t break out of this kind of economy without huge social, economic, and political disruptions—that much should be evident in Bush’s announcement to the American public. The consumer economy may rest upon and be driven by “choice,” as I mentioned last time, but “choice” can’t extend to the very limits of this economic form without abolishing itself. What I mean by this is that if enough individuals stopped participating in the consumer economy, as a matter of choice, then “choice” would vanish for everybody, and the set-up would fall apart. This is why it’s worthwhile to take up McLuhan’s point of view: “choice” rests on a particular form of life, and if it’s possible at all, it’s possible because of widespread habits that the vast majority of people embody, transmit and sustain in the innumerable actions that play out on the surface of this planet at all times.

The most important thing here from a McLuhan-esque point of view, though, is to point out how different the habits involved in a consumer economy are from those made possible by oil, even though each supports and intensifies the other. It’s oil that makes the kind of consumer economy we have possible; and it’s the consumer economy that ensures the proliferation of oil-dependent goods and services. Together they produce a set-up and a form of life which no society has ever instituted by mutual and collective consent. But for those of us who are interested in dealing with the problems posed by this set-up, knowing that its elements can’t be boiled down to a single, non-complex process is essential. The logic of a consumer economy is one thing, and the plasticity of oil’s possibilities is another, and each has to be dealt with in its own right. There are no silver bullets and, if McLuhan is right, there is no painless cure, because what is at stake is breaking out of habits that don’t have a single cause or even a single kind of cause.

It’s always important to resist the understandable desire for an easy way out, because failing to do so can be deeply misleading. I’ll conclude with an unsettling and provocative thought from McLuhan that we can easily apply to our situation. Discussing the relationship between rapid communications media and war in 1951, he notes:

“If there were were no such means of communication either in Russia or in the West at the present moment, it would be quite impossible even to dream of a war between them. An amplifying system hitched to one’s own heartbeat can, the Russians have found, break down the strongest morale. And the press used as a means of thrill and excitement produces a general emotional situation which leads to a crescendo, and crescendo calls for a catharsis—a blood bath. The actual outbreak of the Second World War was a visible relief to many after the years of tense waiting” (The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, p. 7).

Similarly, I think we could argue that we’re in the midst of another crescendo, one emitted by the oil-consumerism set-up; many proposed solutions to our problems consist in trying to do everything possible to retain the good things about the set-up while eradicating its more undesirable aspects. That may be impossible, yet perhaps the true relief comes in giving up on it; doing so, even if the consequences are dire, may clear the way for us to attend to duties and responsibilities that aren’t now visible due to our direction and focus. It’s worth entertaining the idea that just giving up on solving certain intractable problems may be the optimistic act par excellence.

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