February 15, 2024


Credit to someone named Scissorsaurus, who no longer appears to have an active siteCredit to someone named Scissorsaurus, who no longer appears to have an active site

I don’t always read Freddie deBoer because he can sometimes be a bit… well, mean. At the same time, I have to admit that he’s one of the most interesting and insightful cultural critics we’ve got. If you have the stomach to read one more think piece on the bizarre national divide over Taylor Swift, it should probably be his.

deBoer is fully aware of the ridiculousness of this story and the breathless reporting on it. If that were the extent of it, I could take or leave his writing on the subject. In the piece, though, he also gets into the tendency in late-stage capitalism to see ourselves through our consumption choices. This has been fascinating and appalling to come to grips with in the last couple of years.

The story represents so much of the detritus of a broken culture: you’ve got the replacement of a nuthouse Jesus-is-coming right wing with a paranoiac and obsessive the-Jews-are-coming right wing, the increasingly deranged worship of celebrity, the endless retreat into a exhausting political binarism, the contemporary liberal urge to treat immensely powerful people as underdogs, the era of mandated artistic populism, the triviality of American collapse, the overwhelming fear people in the media have of looking old. But I want to focus specifically on a topic related to all of that, which is treating consumption as a substitute for politics. This is one of the clearer examples of the way that many people, many political people, now unthinkingly presume that their politics is simply a function of their capitalist consumption, their brand affinities. Who you are is what you buy. (emphasis mine)

I suppose this metaphysical take on capitalism isn’t completely new. Anyone who has seen the footage of screaming fans wherever the Beatles found themselves (which is everyone) can probably identify with that. Pop culture is loaded with meta-references to worship of pop culture. There was a man named Ove who defined himself by the brand of car he drove.1 It’s just that this kind of self-definition has reached a level of intensity heretofore unimagined, due mostly to the lack of substance in our lives. Sometimes, stripped of meaning and anything but materialism, consumption is all we have.

The world is a sad and broken place and I forgive people for wanting to invest meaningless symbols with great moral valence. I acknowledge that the collapse of meaning has been real and total and that such lofty celebrity can look, to the adolescent brain (literally or metaphorically adolescent) like a good place to park your beliefs, your need, your palpable longing. As with so many other parts of our culture, the question is whether we want to actively encourage perpetual adolescence. Brodesser-Akner calls Swift fans a community with a shared, ardent sense of purpose,” and while this is also true of literal cults, I am sympathetic. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with using cultural consumption as a predictor for someone’s politics, if you’re on Bumble or whatever.

There used to be a show on NPR where people would make recordings about the things they loved the most and the beliefs which drove their lives. It was called This I Believe. I’ll always remember the intro, which featured an audio collage of snippets of the show’s participants listing their beliefs. One man, in a confident voice, proclaimed, I believe in barbecue.” I can’t have been the only one wondering how far a devotion to BBQ gets you when you find out you have cancer or are holding your dead child in your arms.2 When consumption defines your belief system, though, I guess meat is as good of an idol as a pop star.

  1. Okay, A Man Called Ove was a work of fiction, but the protagonist’s but it’s not like his love of Saab and dislike of basically anyone who drove anything else felt real enough.↩︎

  2. Both things that I have unfortunately experienced.↩︎


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