I was in a clothes shop in Soho yesterday. Quite a small one, probably room to swing a cat but not much more. It was one of the new styles of trendy clothes shop which seem to becoming more and more common, where you can buy only about 3 different designs of each type of clothing (i.e. t-shirt, jeans, jackets, etc), but each one in lots of colours. So there were about 20 t-shirts on sale, 3 designs, 4 colours each. The designs, with graphics and slogans, were all bafflingly but trendily random - why write Mexico dolphin 1972 on a t-shirt, and equally importantly, why would I, or anyone else in London, choose to wear one with that written on it? Seemingly it's a post-ironic transcendence of having a message of any kind on one's shirt, whether an explicit (e.g. political) one, or a brash statement of one's colourful personality ("eat my shorts") - which has of course become naff - or even an allusion to a lifestyle, as in a surfer slogan or brand, etc. It's garb for people who live in an urban environment, a free-wheeling, post-industrial spectacle which processes memes and garbles them, so that they become entirely free from their connections or roots, affectless. Consumption is now the lifestyle, rather than surfing - cerebral/internal consumption - I wear in the text space on my chest, the contents of my head, my completely contingent diversion. And - the feeling is, by disposing freely of these memes and tropes, we control and own them all. We, the savvy consumers and (this was Soho) creators of consumption culture, at the cusp of the reproduction of culture, its endless progress, have transcended and now own all the dolphins and Mexico (because we can visit them on YouTube) and other real referents further out in the centrifuge of the world system, which relate to real, warm bodily, productive, historic things subject to a neurological processing according to the predicates of diversion, titillation, novelty, by people in the centre. We are comfortably, knowingly, post-ironically, insulatedly sure of our selves and our position in the world.
Three staff in the shop just wide enough to swing the cat, one young and two not-so-young, the latter with shaved heads, all in the same hip-lite gear. On the wall, a widescreen plasma TV, playing the football match. The oldest chap, perhaps forty or so, probably the owner, solemnly chews on a Taste The Difference (i.e. a luxury-lite brand) yoghurt. A pair of jeans goes for up to £85, but much of the stock's on sale (hence me being in there). One other customer browses the scantily stocked rails. The guy behind the counter, cosseted in a Shoreditch fringe and beret, implacably trendy, tucks into a £5 grilled panini sandwich. There's an atmosphere of bored, aimless comfort. It's hard to resist the urge to say, "it's a hard life isn't it?" to the guy behind the counter. I don't want to take anything away from the achievement of running a successful small business, an independent clothes shop, but what unknown distortions elsewhere (in terms of exploitation of people and resources) must be underwriting this experience of comfort and surplus, this situation where a shop that offers such a paucity of distinction, invention, diversity, and energy and effort and substance, can thrive and prosper?
Here in the north, and I experience this in my own workplace too, we're not only supercomfortable but we're so to the extent that production and consumption overlap to an increasing degree. While we consume we produce. If we're engaged in reproduction of cultural product, then of course, consumption of same is effectively work, because it's research, developing and refining the senses and judgments by usage of which we make our living. Reading a blog, watching videos on YouTube is part of our work. The inverse is that much leisure time has to be devoted to these activities in order to be able to have the right set of marketable knowledge assets, to exude the right cultural air to be able to secure work (in this time of diversity in recruitment, in forward-thinking industries there really might not be - much - discrimination on the basis of gender and race which is of course to be celebrated, but there is on the basis of cultural identification; one can be black, white, Muslim, gay, straight, so long as one is into 24 for example; this might be the reason for the lag of Muslim or older recruitment behind other 'categories' in becoming genuinely (by which I mean internally, within attitudes, not just legislation) widespread and accepted - because this potentially constitutes a cultural difference. This is where important work needs to be done, from my perspective, in highlighting the negative and unacceptable aspects of our commodity-based culture in order to make those who live and work within it more open to, accommodating to and understanding of those who both come from outside it and furthermore choose not to embrace it fully, who maintain different values and identifications, which I'd argue is the only sane thing to do, and something which could save us all if we could all do it). So a seemingly benign bargain is actually pernicious - in order to have a career between 9 and 6, one must give over all of one's time, and one's consciousness, and one's identity and one's politics.
We tweenagers for whom the twenties are the new teen years, the office is the new living room, blugged into our computer work machine-cum-games consoles, spending at no exaggeration one-third of our remunerated time discussing music and outside activities and gossip and the social obligations of the office, are truly the cosseted captives of capital accumulation in the centre. We don't reproduce capital so much through production, though we do with our highly over-valued creative skills, which are really just the recycling of tropes from this culture, and the processing of ones from outside it to create novelty; but we do by consuming as we produce, and by holding captive ourselves and each other, nullifying politicisation, neutralising citizenship and the demos and maintaining a useful swathe of inertia across our generation, among the voters of the capital of a leading imperialist country. Our contribution is not the extraction of resources from or exploitation of people in the South (that duty falls to our peers in the primary industries), but the anaemification of politics in the electorates of the north, by replacing awareness with commodified memes, which we can wear on t-shirts and in our heads.
An addendum - I was also in Brick Lane, in the east end, yesterday - a more promising area, of communities with roots and action and groups, where Asian Muslim and white subcultures intersect and encounter each other usually with acceptance, and putatively a locus of a creative if not political alternative - but every shop, every offering involved only either wonderful earthy lunches (homemade pies, salt beef bagels, organic burgers), or, more significantly, consumption of images - fashion shops and 'galleries' and photobook shops abound; I saw one outlet where one could reasonably expect to be able to buy a book about politics or history, and none where one could borrow one, in the entire area of hundreds of shops.