In 1975, Robert Bellah, after reflecting on the cultural experimentation of the 1960s' counterculture, made the comment, "A period of great social change always produces a certain amount of antinomianism and anarchism."11 Antinomianism is a rich term in Christian theology, referring to Gnostic sects in the early centuries of the church, some of them loosely Christian, who believed that spirit and matter were so opposed to each other that what one did with one's body was of no consequence to the condition of one's soul. This led to excesses of bacchanalian proportions among some sects. It found a justification in the Pauline view that because we are saved by God's gracious action on our behalf, we are freed from a strict observation of the law - a conclusion to which Paul strenuously objected. Anarchism is the belief that external laws and moral codes ought to be overthrown in order to allow people to govern themselves by their own best judgment.
Bellah's observation is a trenchant one, given that both antinomianism and anarchism have their advocates today, as much of the material that will be examined in the pages ahead will testify. Consumerism is a form of antinomianism, the therapeutic as a mode of life is anarchistic, and both antinomianism and anarchism travel well with the individualism that characterizes our time. If he is right that these two creeds are harbingers of "great social change," then we are right to be on the look out for what is next.
A similar account of what distinguishes our time is found in those who draw attention to our loss of faith. Not the loss of faith in God, or in transcendent reality - that loss was already sustained in the early twentieth century, as reported in advance by Nietzsche - but a second-stage loss of faith in the very things that compensated us for our loss of God. According to this view, our time is suffering from a loss of faith in progress, the great promise of the Enlightenment. Moreover, there has been a loss of faith in the capacity of modernity to provide our lives with a sense of meaning, whether through science, art, democratic institutions, or modern master narratives of global harmony. And most recently, there is a gathering disillusionment with the promises of material consumption, with the ideology of consumerism itself. This disillusionment has been deferred longer than Marx anticipated, due to the genius of marketers who learned how to harness the power of commodity fetishism and to insert brands into the sockets of our lives that were once filled with religious symbols and icons.
But there are multiple signs that our faith in the life-giving powers of commodities and even of the semiotic mythologies of brands and logos -the ethereal world that invests commodities with their meaning - is giving out, and that we are no longer satisfied by the compensation they offer. Take, for instance, the phenomenon of brands that have had virtually no marketing becoming the "underground darlings" of subcultures (like bike messengers and snowboarders) - subcultures whose strategy is not to avoid consumption, but to consume "square" and unknown brands as a form of protest. Recent beneficiaries of this loyalty to non-brands have been Doc Martens footwear, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, and Toyota's new and unadvertised Scion line of cars. These under-marketed brands have been elevated to the status of "fashion accessories" for aspiring anarchists, a way of registering solidarity with a "lifestyle of dissent" that resents the omnipresent brandscaping of our culture.12 Some view this and other losses of faith in the various promises of modernity as revealing an aporia that will create an occasion for a re-enchantment of the world.13 Others simply mark it as a feature of the malaise of the present that we must find a way beyond.
A poignant instance of this backlash is the 1999 film, FightClub.14 FightClub, based on a novel of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk, is a parable about the life-sapping grip of commodities and brands on our identities. It is built around a character named Jack who works for an automobile maker as a recall coordinator who flies around the country investigating gory car wrecks in order to determine whether mechanical failure was at fault, and, if so, to calculate, on behalf of his employer, the expense of initiating recalls versus the anticipated costs of out-of-court settlements. This macabre line of work has distanced him somewhat from his feelings. Jack (Edward Norton) is in his early thirties, calm, likable, but a bit bland, without friends or family. He lives in a stylish high-rise condo outfitted entirely with designer-name furniture, kitchenware, and wardrobe that he has acquired from mail order catalogs. Suffering from insomnia and a vague longing for something to matter in his life, he seeks solace in support groups for a variety of ailments he does not have. Then one night, returning from the airport, he discovers his condo has been blown-up, and out of the blue he calls a soap salesman he had just met on the plane, a character named Tyler (Brad Pitt) who is half Good Samaritan, half sociopath.
Tyler invites Jack to meet him at a nearby bar, and over beers Jack tries to size up his loss:
Jack: I don't know, it's just that when you buy furniture you tell yourself,
"That's it, that's the last sofa I'm going to need. Whatever else happens,
I've got that sofa problem handled." I had it all. I had a stereo that was very decent, a wardrobe that was getting very respectable. It was close to being complete.
Tyler: Shit, man, now it's all gone. Jack: All gone.
Tyler: All gone. Do you know what a duvet is? Jack: It's a comforter.
Tyler: It's a blanket. Just a blanket. Now why do guys like you and I know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then? Jack: Consumers ...
Tyler: Right, consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty - these things don't concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy's name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra ... Jack: Martha Stewart.
Tyler: F - k Martha Stewart. Martha's just polishing the brass on the
Titanic. It's all goin' down, man____But that's me, I could be wrong, maybe it's a terrible tragedy.
Jack: Naw, it's just stuff. It's not a tragedy.
Tyler: Well, you did lose a lot of versatile solutions for modern living____Look, things you own end up owning you.
Thus begins Jack's apprenticeship to an ad hoc twelve-step program that Tyler devises to free Jack from his bondage to the dominant paradigm of consumerism. It involves Jack in making a lot of bad choices, and escalates to "Project Mayhem," a guerilla war on corporate America with missions ranging from bashing luxury cars parked on the street with a baseball bat, to "Operation Latte Thunder" (dislodging an elephant-sized bronze sphere from its pedestal above a corporate fountain and aiming it to roll down an embankment to crash through a franchise coffee bar), to the culminating assignment of a coordinated detonation of explosives in the skyscraper headquarters of every credit card company in the US, thereby completely erasing everyone's debt record, and ensuring that "we all go back to zero - total chaos."
This is a movie that has tremendous cachet with Generation Y. It has been compared to The Graduate as a work of popular art that speaks of the frustration and resentment that at least a large segment of this generation harbors toward their predecessors for the world they have been handed. The story does not advocate the measures it depicts, but it does intend to be a scathing critique of the ubiquitous branding of our lives. Palahniuk has said that his intention with the book was to offer people "the idea that they could create their own lives outside the existing blueprint for happiness offered by society." And this blueprint that is circulating has the logos of corporate sponsorship limned onto every square inch.
FightClub is a parable about the emptiness of a life full of consumable products. It commends, at least on the surface, a solution replete with aggressive anarchism and antinomianism. We do, it seems, live in a hinge period between eras. The anarchism and antinomianism that Bellah reminds us is to be expected in such a time has proven fruitful for much experimentation in both critiques and overarching visions of what life might mean in the new era we are just entering. Such experimentation tends to be fractal in the sense that it tends to generate clear alternatives that themselves come to impasses, and then new alternatives emerge. The counterculture movement of the 1960s, for instance, which was itself an assertion of freedom against post-war consumerism, has been charged with becoming the very "bourgeois bohemianism"15 or "therapeutic consumerism"16 - a freedom to consume whatever one wishes for the lofty ideal of personal fulfillment - that a film like Fight-Club protests. Here, Generation Y is openly criticizing the depthlessness of the world they have been handed by the generation who registered its complaint in The Graduate. The Hegelian movement of Spirit may be at work here - thesis, antithesis, synthesis. We seem conditioned with each rising generation to subvert the dominant paradigm, but then find some novel way to reconcile our rebellion with the enticements to consume.
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