Commodity and Community. (The Ritual Crossing)
When the ethereal glow of the isles at sunrise suffuses the living room from whatever manner of electronic screen and the promise of peace held out by an evening journey across a still sea resides in the gentle contours of objects promoting plenitude in the home, then the crossing of the waters to the Isles of the Blest is the crossing of the ways of the commodity and community and that of rituality and its brightest conjuration, the ever-smiling angel of recognition. In the mirror of objects: our shining selves.
Can there be a ritual without a centre, without some obvious religious format, of mass or masquerade (secular or traditional) and without a fixed site of pre-ordained periodic repetition where intensity-conjuring events take place?
Just as the flicker of recognition, the exchange of recognitions, is the minimal form of the act of collective communion, so the minimal end, or degree zero, of the annual festive ritual in its relation to the commodity or to object exchange lies in the individual purchase, the trace of the self in the choice of object as the confirmation of the self (we are what we buy).
We may well call our annual festivals, as well as the other, more private, festive events that line our lives, festivals of the commodity; but when were festivals ever without commodities? Without, at least, the exchange of things, both as gift and as exchange for some designated equivalents (exchanges ultimately designed for the making of relations). Only the means of production have changed; capital now supports the process rather than undermining it in its traditional manifestations. Otherwise put, were there not always markets, were such events not synonymous with markets, or proximate if not synonymous; generating markets, generating the production of goods, generating objects to be exchanged for their symbolic value (the production of the Good) engendering identity? Markets: sites of exchange clustering around sites of symbolic exchange. Sites of exchange to which we flock, returning with the offerings we need to celebrate our private symbolic communion.
If the festival revolves annually or in cycles of years, what of the pattern of days and weeks (the minutes on the clock of ritual). The alternance of labour and consumption rituals. Identity expenditure is ritual in the commodity; recognition tied to the commodity. (But which is master?) What we buy is what we are; 'lifestyle'. A statement about ourselves. Differentiated; the putative, much advertised, difference of self from others (individuality). Or else a badge of membership: or both (simultaneously). All tied into the sense of self; all now to be defined by identity. The lineaments of which can be bought. Is this 'all' therefore now seamlessly tied into the life of the commodity? (The ubiquity of the gift-relation in exchanges -of objects and services- between friends and relatives, in hierarchy-placing favours and in 'irrational' acts of self-assertion, of the gift in work, private-life and the self, suggest that the priority may still lie elsewhere...) Certainly much passes through the circuit of the commodity (even if involving its destruction, and how much of consumption is in fact destruction...). 'It', objects, must, after all, first be bought; but then, what is new, 'it' always had to be bought, by time, by goods, by services, by labour, by some sort of exchange, this -our investment- is after-all, what gives 'it' its value. The commodity merely interposes itself into the exchange relations between labour and identity.
Whence the growing importance of the general relation of commodity to identity exchange (as opposed to mere physical sustenance). Not least concerning the problem of recession or slump, which, in wealthy (advanced capitalist) societies, no longer results in mass privation, but does cause a lessening of expenditure and so stokes-down the fires of identity. Stoking-up their discontents (anyway latent, if not produced a new, in wealthy societies). Malcontents multiply and other, negative, poles of confirmation are sought. The search for scapegoats begins. Other forms of ritual take over. Not revolution but the pogrom awaits in mass movements caused by economic disruption or insecurity (the psychology of loss in a society of plenty) at least in advanced capitalist societies. Rebellion, such as it exists, is about expenditure (hence the obsession with tax) with that which is left over for the nurture of our identity, for our on-going individuation and the recognition of such by our (largely imaginary) peers. Rebellion now: the permanent state of a minority, the occasional pose of the majority, a strident identity position (mark of a sub-culture so dependant on the hand that it would bite, that being seen to bite it constitutes the limit and end of all rebellion). When linked to a belief system the posture of today's rebel is accompanied by some form of scapegoating (those few who are to blame, without whom the world would be a better place). Such negative other-making is often tied to the positive other of ideologies secular and sacred, utopia or heaven. If the target is the very powerful, then the diagnosis -however rhetorically couched- may well be correct as to the latter's role in the lives of the poor or powerless (in ecology as well as in economy). However as a rule scapegoats are taken from 'lesser', weaker, groups - the powerless, easy victims; those who may be found in some (other) way 'in the wrong', those who can not bite back (those whose votes do not count).
Formula for a new utopia: To defuse the smouldering fuse of identity (of nation, class and gender); to make more wealth (more objects and services); to buy something we already possess (to re-ignite the smouldering fuse of identity...).
Copyright 2004 Peter Nesteruk