Accessorized identities

Near the beginning of FightClub, Jack is seen sitting on the toilet in his stylish condo, studying a magazine and rotating it as if to examine a racy centerfold. The magazine, it turns out, is an Ikea catalogue, and he is on his cell phone placing an order for an Erika Pekkari dust ruffle. "Like so many others," he voices over, "I had become a slave to the Ikea nesting instinct. If I saw something clever like a little coffee table in the shape of a yin-yang, I'd have to have it... I'd flip through catalogues and wonder, 'What kind of dining set defines me as a person?' We used to read pornography. Now it was the Horchow Collection." A few days later, after his apartment has been firebombed and all of its contents destroyed, Jack is overheard telling the police investigator: "That condo was my life. I loved every stick of furniture in that place. That is not just a bunch of stuff that got destroyed, it was me!"

This sentiment that a person is the brand-named commodities they cocoon themselves within is more widespread than most would willingly admit, at least about themselves. But it is a method of constructing one's identity that journalists, academics, novelists and, most importantly, market analysts, have observed and are discussing as the dominant means of identity-construction at the beginning of the new millennium. Sociologist David Lyon has described this phenomenon as "shopping for a self."

He suggests it has been adopted in response to our having surrendered all the old scripts that gave our lives coherence and meaning in an earlier era, for example, religious traditions, lifelong occupations, gender identities, age, relationships, communities (village, clan, or nation), and our location in a hierarchy stretching from prince to peasant.10 These old scripts have lost the quality of permanence they were once assumed to have, and so we find ourselves casting about for new moorings upon which to secure our identities. Today, Lyon claims, "identities are constructed through consuming. Forget the idea that who we are is given by God or achieved through hard work in a calling or a career; we shape our malleable image by what we buy - our clothing, our kitchens, and our cars ..."11 Continuing this train of thought, he adds, "postmodern consumers constantly 'try on' not only new clothes, new perfumes, but new identities, fresh personalities, different partners."12 This helps to explain why the careful selection and display of "the right kind of clothing, body piercings, music, electronic equipment, sporting goods, and other items" is so important to teenagers, who are simply more transparent in their identity bricolage than are their elders.13

Ian Angus, drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin and more recent theorizing about the simulacra, calls this process by which we shop for selves a "simulation of identity." Through our consumption, we subscribe to a particular "image-set," affiliating ourselves with a coherent set of images behind which we presume there exists an original and authentic aura, an intrinsically valuable reality. But, he claims, the original is simply not there. The images from which our image-sets are drawn are themselves derivative images. And our identities are thus suspended in the hall of mirrors that now goes by the name of the simulacra, and the self we posit at the center of it all is itself a full simulation, an epiphenomenon of all the images it reflects.14

Endorsing this line of thinking, Herbert Muschamp, the architecture critic for the New York Times, rejoices in the emergence of design as a tool through which people have learned to search out and construct their identities. The influence of architectural aesthetics on clothing, gadgets, furniture and appliances enriches the play of images out of which we manufacture ourselves. For this reason, Muschamp relishes the fact that the Target chain of department stores, which peddles its goods to the middle class, now sells items designed by architects Michael Graves and Philippe Starck.15 Access to designer objects, even if it is just toasters and bedspreads, is a milestone of democracy. Taking pleasure in surfaces is no longer sneered at; it is a way of conforming our identities to the sentiments and historical eras these surfaces reflect. Virginia Postrel, in her book, The Substance of Style, argues that while "the meaning of surface is not Meaning in some grand, metaphysical sense," it is through the aesthetics of design that we connect ourselves to identities "we want to own."16 By experimenting with new ensembles of lamps, chairs, automobiles and footwear, we exercise the power of reinventing ourselves, and declare to ourselves and anyone who cares to notice and is aesthetically literate the deeper purposes with which we are aligned.

That we are deriving our identities, our deepest sense of who we are, from the products we consume is a predictable enough phenomenon that market analysts have assigned names to our clustered purchasing habits. The marketing research firm Claritas has developed an index of lifestyle profiles they have named PRIZM (Potential Rating Index for ZIP Markets) that clusters Americans on the basis of their patterns of consumption.17 They have isolated 62 clusters, and given them colorful names such as "money and brains," "young literati," "single city blues," "new empty nests," "urban achievers," "black enterprise," "shotguns and pickups," "norma rae-ville," and "bohemian mix." Within each cluster, they can predict the mail order catalogues, dot.coms or chain stores its inhabitants are likely to shop from, the pet breeds they prefer, the magazines they subscribe to, the media they tune into, the vegetables they like to eat, the beverages and snacks they favor, the sports they play, the cars they drive, the designer clothing they wear, the furniture they relax in, the appliances they trust, the vacation spots they frequent, the hygiene they adhere to, the level of education they earn, the universities they attend, the residential architecture they prefer, the family units they contrive, and the politicians they vote for.

These consumption clusters are most often described as "lifestyles," and, according to James Twitchell, "lifestyles are secular religions, coherent patterns of valued things. Your lifestyle is not related to what you make but to what you buy. ... One of the chief aims of the way we live now is the enjoyment of clustering with those who share the same clusters of objects as do we."18

Based on this clustering research, if a market analyst can determine a handful of a person's favorite brands and restaurants, she can triangulate a whole network of products and even product brands the person is inclined to purchase with a little persuasion. And even individuals who believe themselves to be resistant to the enticements of advertising are likely more patterned in their purchasing habits than they realize. They might avoid the mall and the chain stores, and harbor a real aversion toward SUVs, Borders bookstores, Tommy Hilfiger, MTV, McDonald's and Starbuck's, but find kindred spirits at the local independent coffee bar, book dealer, whole foods grocer, and neighborhood yard sales, driving there in old Volvos, Valiants, or Vespas, listening to alternative music downloaded from Napster, renting independent films, and socializing around imported cheeses and microbrewed beer while swapping recent gleanings from theonion.com, salon.com or McSweeneys. In other words, even those who take a principled stance against the power of brands and logos gravitate toward consumption as a primary means of self-definition. Even non-brands have become a brand. And since the primary medium in which we now live is composed of the commodities that surround us, Twitchell suggests that we now inhabit "brandscapes," which we know intimately, identify with, internalize, and with whose inhabitants we bond the way our ancestors knew, identified, internalized and bonded with fellow inhabitants of their landscapes.

As is richly suggested in Genesis 1, the apprehension of human identity is a "reflexive" achievement - we are beings whose self-understanding arises from identifying within ourselves those capacities that reflect certain transcendent powers we come to recognize as greater than ourselves and upon which we feel dependent. An individual may acquiesce to or resist these powers; in either case, self-identity is a reflexive response to them. But the cosmic powers upon which we believe ourselves to be ultimately dependent are always mediated through the persons, institutions, and symbols in our experience upon which we are relatively dependent. In a world that has become so crowded with commodities, it is not surprising that we have come to identify ourselves by detouring through symbolically charged consumable goods. We accessorize our lives to declare our uniqueness and our loyalties. These commodities and the designer names they bear serve as the moorings to which we secure our identities, our most basic sense of who we are. They have come to represent the powers we identify with and seek to reflect. Neuroscientists at Emory University have even noted that MRI scans of the brains of people looking at pictures of branded products that they like and are inclined to buy show heightened neural activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, that region of the brain most associated with our sense of self.19

The inveterate collectors in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity resort by habit to "desert island all-time top five most memorable" lists to make sense of their lives when things are coming apart - top five records to play on a Monday morning, top five dream jobs, that sort of thing. Suffering a recent break-up with his girlfriend, Rob, the owner of a used record store, stumbles into a date with a kindred soul, another record collector. When she is out of range, he turns to the camera and says, "A while back, Dick, Barry and I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films - these things matter. Call me shallow, it's the f - g truth. And by this measure, I was having one of the best dates of my life."

There are two lessons here. First, we compose our identities reflexi-vely - by becoming self-aware of what we like. What we do like does disclose what we are like. That's not shallow, it is just the way it is.

This is a central implication of ultimate concern - the self is formed by its concerns and the way it orders its concerns. In the words of Jesus, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Mt. 6.21). Second, more than any generation before us, these things we like are manufactured and branded commodities. Commodities serve as our autobiographical markers. Therein lies the danger.

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