Commodity Fetishism

H. Richard Niebuhr contended that we find ourselves pulled almost irresistibly toward polytheism, and that epicureanism (Ferucci) and existentialism (Morrow) are mere pauses between traditional monotheisms and the polytheism of modernity. Polytheism, as he defined it, is a religion of many small and mostly unintegrated concerns, inspiring adherents to chase haphazardly after many shiny gods - purported sources of meaning and power - to provide life with direction and consolation. The marketing of brand commodities presents us with one of our most tempting invitations to become practicing polytheists. It is more than a material desire to consume the products themselves, and more than an urge to display our wealth through conspicuous consumption. The powers we seek to access through consumable goods beckon with promises that were once associated with more traditional sacraments.

As with more traditional sacraments, we have come to believe that the powers that reside in commodities become our powers when we consume them. This is possible because commodities are more than useful objects. They enter the market already ensconced in an elaborate semiology, one that has acquired religious significance and meaning. Through decades of advertising, clever packaging and product placement, the meaning of products has transcended what the product is or does, and has come to rest primarily in its image and the whole network of references that this image brings into play. The product's semiotic connotations have become more important than its specific use. To achieve this, advertisers have learned the art of what Marx once called "commodity fetishism," by means of which commodities are endowed with a numinosity that elicits respect, devotion, and trepidation.

The most obvious examples of this are found in the marketing of cars and perfumes. The naming of automobiles has a fascinating history. In the earliest era, when both the automobile and advertising industries were young and still feeling their way, cars bore generic names like Model T Ford, Cadillac Model Thirty, and Chevrolet Series 490. In the 1950s, cars began acquiring names from the animal kingdom like Mustang, Impala, Bobcat, Cougar, Thunderbird, Roadrunner, Eagle, Falcon, Stingray, Barracuda, Pinto, Bronco, and Ram. As our ancestors might have adorned themselves with the skins of their totem animals, believing that the unique powers of the animal could in so doing become one's own, the practice was revived in the naming of automobiles, tapping into the primal energies and fuzzy mythologies of totemic animals. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was some flirting with names from the gods of classical mythology - Apollo, Centaur, Electra, and Cressida. Now, recognizing that the culture has gained some distance from both totemic creatures and Greek and Roman deities, automobile manufacturers have recalibrated their lexicon to a different mythic layer. Newer vehicles are called Tracker, Trooper, Expedition, Explorer, Excursion, Safari, Trailblazer, Ranger, Renegade, Quest, Odyssey, and Voyager. These vehicles invite their drivers into a legendary world of intrepid explorers, the world of our colonial and frontier ancestors who navigated their way to uncharted and unspoiled lands where fortunes could be won, new mysteries discovered, hidden caches of natural resources exploited, and anything could happen.

The naming of women's perfumes is similarly mystifying. One approach is to name these fragrances after archetypal essences, like Truth, Beautiful, Eternity, Realities, Space, Happy, and Pure - virtually read out of Plato's metaphysics and returning their wearers to the ethereal realm of pure spirit and abstract ideas, to the archetypes out of which the world was made. Another approach is to give the scent a name that associates it with a primordial taboo or transgression, such as Obsession, Decadence, Duende, Envy, Knowing, My Sin, Eden, Banish, Babylon, or Beyond Paradise. These perfume names are all powerful religious symbols, on both sides of the register (totem and taboo), inviting the one who is anointed by them into the mythical time of origins, either before or just after the Fall, leaving the impression that through the consumption of this product, one is partaking in primordial forces, in the time of beginnings when the world was full of possibilities.

The names given to automobiles and perfumes strum mythic chords within us and put into play the "germinal riches" and rejuvenating powers of the times of origin and paradigmatic transitions, when the world was being made or remade. In advertising this effect is accentuated by locating the product in uncivilized wilderness. Cars are often seen in commercials navigating roads where no other cars are present, zooming through pristine wilderness, winding up high tundra slopes, scaling granite peaks, bouncing through jungles, and rolling across arctic icefields or African savannahs. Their milieu is primordial, and they zip through unpopulated space with an uncanny effortlessness. Cars are portrayed as machines with supernatural powers that under the omniscient guidance of a NAVSTAR global positioning satellite can transport us to a land before time. Similarly, perfume ads are often set in paradisal landscapes - beaches, tropics, gardens, woodlands - populated only by a woman and a man, tumbling together in innocent bliss.

The religious effect of the names of these products is further enhanced by tapping into some proven conventions of iconography in the way they are advertised. Icons are a species of religious symbolism, pointing beyond themselves to transcendent realities, and graphically participating in those realities. They are typically images depicting religious persons and events that are understood to serve as portals through which the beneficent powers of the divine can pass into our world and our adoration can be passed back. Traditional iconographic imagery achieves this effect by incorporating visual signals such as exaggerated features of the figure depicted, highly stylized decoration, and a coded use of color and various symbols, such as light rays, halos, anchors, keys and bread. In automobile advertising, cars are often depicted with exaggerated features: sized larger than life and manifesting powers that far outstrip their actual technical capabilities, or bathed in light to elicit a feeling of wondrousness. Or, alternatively, but achieving the same effect, they are presented as objects of adoration, with neighbors approaching reverentially, practically genuflecting, and passersby stunned into speechlessness, ecstatic in the presence of such exquisite machinery. Perfume ads also make use of the iconography of light. As a single word, "Eternity," or "Obsession" is uttered - even whispered as if in the presence of the sacred itself - the vessel of golden liquid appears, luminous with a light from beyond.

The use of all of these conventions of religious symbolism, metaphysical abstracts, primordial myth, and visual iconography invites the consumer to attribute powers to these commodities that grandly exceed their actual usefulness. Presented through these conventions, these powers are reified as attributes of the ultimate force in the universe upon which we depend, and we then reflexively seek to incorporate these same powers into ourselves by consuming the product.

When I was a boy I believed, as I had been instructed while watching television, that cookies were baked by elves in hollow trees, that my favorite breakfast cereal contained crunchy marshmallows stolen from a leprechaun, and that beans and peas were grown by a jolly green giant in a place called Happy Valley. My first experience of real cognitive dissonance was realizing that the huge, nondescript brick factory next to I-70 in Denver, crowned with smokestacks and surrounded by an oceanic parking lot, was the Keebler bakery. No sign of trees anywhere. No elves in sight. I recalled this a few months ago when I noticed that my 3-year-old son was transfixed in the cereal aisle at a supermarket, undergoing a rhapsody as visible to an onlooker as what I have seen in his eyes when he enters the great vaulted space of the sanctuary of the church where we worship. Mythical creatures - toucans, rabbits, cuckoo birds, tigers, elves and leprechauns - harkened to him from boxes of magically delicious breakfast cereals.

We are living in an era in which most Americans alive today, at least most who have been born since 1945, have received the bulk of our mythological worlds from people who want to sell us something. The great wave of secularization that was believed to characterize the twentieth century as Western cultures finally "came of age" and learned to cope with a "disenchanted universe," in Max Weber's sober observation, was pushed back by brilliant marketers who re-enchanted our world with a cast of mythical characters as vast as any medieval hagiography: Charlie Tuna, Mr Clean, Smokey Bear, Snap, Crackle and Pop, the Energizer Bunny, Mayor McCheese, and the Pillsbury Doughboy, to name a few.57 In the transcendent realm that these marvelous creatures inhabit behind the veil of our own, there is much rushing about to service every conceivable human longing and desire. It is a benevolent realm, a happy valley - a place redolent of the twenty-third Psalm - green pastures, still waters, cups overflowing - all outfitted to restore parched human souls.

It is largely a harmless place, this enchanted realm peopled by elves and talking fish. Cultures have always had folk and fairy tales that existed alongside their more firmly held belief systems. But this particular happy valley does have the potentially dangerous effect of so disguising the real processes by which the goods we consume are produced that it can serve as a mask for much exploitation behind the scenes. The true story behind the auto showroom, the perfume counter, and the packages on our grocers' shelves involve many complex and some ugly macroeco-nomic details - disappearing family farms, genetically engineered crops, overuse of pesticides, tedious assembly lines, arcane trade agreements, third world debt, corporate welfare, sweatshops, clear-cut forests, union struggles, polluting technologies - not exactly frisky elves baking cookies in hollow trees. But this sort of information seldom makes it onto the packaging in which the food comes wrapped. Instead, much more fabulous and mystifying tales are told.58

Our distant ancestors did not view any thing as a dead object. Every stone, crooked branch, lump of coal, gazelle tooth, or misshapen potato could be a bearer of supernatural power. Historians of religion describe this view of power-bearing objects as "fetishism," a concept that Marx borrowed and elaborated. Fetishes were typically things small enough to be picked up and pocketed, transported as bearers of a sacred power that had a simultaneous existence in this world and in the world of the gods. With Marx, I suspect we have never outgrown fetishism. There are all the obvious sanctified fetishes for Christians - crosses, family Bibles, the water of baptism and the bread and wine of communion, religious books - all signs of grace that serve to remind the faithful of actions of God on their behalf behind the scenes of their lives. There are surviving fetishes of an earlier age - colorful stones, garden gnomes, rabbit's feet, family photos, coin collections - whose mythologies we are not clear about, but whose presence we find somehow reassuring. And then there is this relatively young batch of fetishes - the brands and consumer goods that do what bona fide fetishes have always done: bring us good fortune, help us to lure mates, humiliate our rivals, guard against sickness, and bestow on us powers we have envied in members of the animal kingdom: speed, strength, stamina and fertility. As simple commodities they may not perform these functions, but through effective marketing, a mythos is conjured that invests certain meanings and powers into a whole cosmos of product lines.

The most effective marketing mystifies consumer goods, and thereby pours meaning into the products we consume, meaning around which we organize our desires and hopes. No longer dead objects, our groceries, cars, wardrobes, toiletries, home furnishings, vacations, and computers come to be inhabited by supernatural spirits that provide us with the meaning we need to get through life. This was driven home in recent advertising spots for Intel microprocessors that depicted men dancing around in festive costume, as if at carnival in Deep Space Nine, shuttling data inside of computer chips. At some unconscious level we can be persuaded that if Intel microchips are in our computers, these techno-sprites are inside playfully choreographing our data in an elegant dance. But like all deities, these spirits are jealous of our devotion and demand that we make sacrifices to appease them.

There is a novel called American Gods by the British comic book writer, Neil Gaiman.59 Set in the present, the story follows the efforts of the old Scandinavian god Odin as he traverses the blue highways of America looking up all the assorted gods that came over here from Europe, Africa, India, Russia, Arabia, and the Pacific Rim, lodged happily in the hearts and minds of the waves of immigrants who made new lives for themselves here since the first ill-fated journey of the Norsemen in the ninth century. Thor, Anansi, Ashtaroth, Kali, Czernobog, Leprechauns and Banshees, the Jinn - all well cared for by the first generations of settlers through fervent prayer, offerings and sacrifices, but now long forgotten, neglected, hungry and stranded and strewn across a strange land where they do what they must do to get by. Odin finds them waiting tables, pumping gas and tending bar "in the cracks at the edges of society." All former rivals, and with much bad blood between them, Odin has undertaken to organize them into a guerilla force against the new gods now waxing in power on this continent, soaking up the devotion - and sacrificial offerings - of its inhabitants. Who are these new powerful gods? "Gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon. Proud gods, fat and foolish creatures, puffed up with their own newness and importance."

At one point in the book, late at night in a motel room in rural Illinois, Odin's companion, an ex-con named Shadow, has tuned into an old episode of I Love Lucy to unwind from the day, when Lucy shoves Ricky Ricardo out the door of their apartment, lights a cigarette, faces the camera and tells Shadow that they need to talk.

"Who are you?" asks Shadow.

She answers: "I'm the idiot box. I'm the TV. I'm the all-seeing eye and the world of the cathode ray... I'm the little shrine the family gathers to adore."

"You're the television? Or someone in the television?"

"The TV's the altar. I'm what people are sacrificing to."

"What do they sacrifice?" asks Shadow.

"Their time, mostly," says Lucy. "Sometimes each other."

It seems that we conform our lives to several mythologies at once, mythologies populated by these very deities that Gaiman's pagan god Odin is seeking to vanquish - the gods of credit card, freeway, Internet, radio, heavy appliances, hospital, retirement fund, jet travel, education, military might, and television. For most of our middle range, penultimate concerns (for the well-being of our families, health, financial security, diversion from feelings of guilt, inspiration in our calling, pleasure, protection from misfortune), we find ourselves spending much time at other altars, appeasing other powers, polytheists that we are, making the sacrifices they demand.

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100 Flirting Tips

100 Flirting Tips

Flirting is playful in nature, which is practiced by a person in order to express his or her interest in another individual, either romantically or sexually. There are ways to flirt subtlety and there are also ways of flirting that can be obvious at times. You can flirt with the use of your eyes, body language, touch, tone of your voice, or a combination of the mentioned behaviors.

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