The Commodification of Commodification

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The vast wasteland of New Age products and services is a perfect example of commodification of ideas, of investing products with an aura that manifests sales if not saintliness. Nirvana as a spiritual IRA, karma as a transcendental ATM card, devotion as a hobby you can practice in the home, the spiritual retreat as vacation paradise. You've been there. We all have.

Let's face it, the common denominator of human nature is the desire to transcend human nature. And the advertising and marketing people know it. They capitalize on it. While you pray, they prey. And they feast. They do not go hungry, because, as Barnum was fallaciously alleged to have said, there's one born every minute. At our current rate of population increase, there are now whole crowds born every minute, so if you really want to get suckered, be there early to avoid the rush! You gotta get up pretty early in the morning to be a fool these days.

The salient question is this: why is the marketing of a product inevitably more effective than the product itself? Self-help books induce millions to buy, though few change. Don’t let this cause you to harbor paranoid notions that these self-acclaimed gurus and masters don't have your best interests at heart. Don’t be foolish, friend! Naturally they love you and care for your spiritual welfare state. Like Zen monks of old, beating their students and shoving them in the mud, our modern snake-oil shamans, sham sorcerers and huckster health experts have much to teach you. They provide many fine examples of the science of compliance and manipulation used by professionals of all stripes to coerce, subjugate and monopolize the minds of the masses. And you, yes you, can easily seize the production of control. All you need to do is develop the pick-pocket finesse to steal the tricks from up their sleeve and use their time-tested and true legerdemain to liberate yourself. If you can’t find a shaman in your neighborhood, a used car dealer or insurance salesman will do…

Ultimately, neither goods nor their embodied ideals produce the pallor and listlessness consuming the consumer junkie—this zombification, the embalming of desire and the will occurs when we allow ourselves to believe the hypnotic suggestion that we cannot live without a mediated screen between us and the much-talked-about, dangerous horrors of raw experience. Donning the shiny and powerful prosthesis offered by the flashy man with his bald smile and damp palms, we forget that we were never crippled until we gazed into the showroom mirror. Fawning over our new apparatus and dreaming of upgrades available “ no money down, no payment till next year,” we shackle ourselves into a deathly paralysis of complacency and weakness.

The Kama Sutra of commodification, consumer culture and mediated experience is vast, consisting of an endless array of teases, touches, come-ons and addictive anti-climaxes. Though turning the tricks of the trade most often takes advantage of the consumer, it must be remembered that it is rarely without consent. Many are the positions in which we find ourselves fucked, and though we may be poorer for the service, the titillation brings us back for another fix through its very incompletion. These acts performed anesthetically and under prophylactic certainty of the absence of creation are nevertheless guised as a means of conceiving and securing meaning. But as Denis Hollier so aptly states, “Meaning exists only at risk. It is never fixed, never arrested. There are no guaranties. Meaning is uninsured. Not Covered.”

Marketing uses desire, fascination and fantasy as pimps use whores. To make profits, not love. If desire is insufficient, distribution inconvenient or the market difficult to target, new desires are easily enough manufactured. Is it so strange that people who abhor radical change in all other arenas of life should be so Pavlovian in their salivary salute to the season's sartorial or technical splendors? We are trained to build modular, modern lives by structuring identity around convenient components invested into the physical corpus of consumer commodities. Fashion is for insects—a sign of social compliance with the hive-mind. Style, on the other hand, usurps and subverts dominant imagery—infecting innocuous fodder with incendiary and personal vision—replacing the insipid message in the empty bottle with an Absolut Molotov.

The only sensible move is to appropriate the techniques by which you are manipulated into buying life-styles and packaged ideals, and use them to sell yourself the actual life and ideals you want. Inoculation is the first step, mainlining media and cultural images until image saturation achieves satiation, even nausea. This superabundance provides our vocabulary when we subvert the image to our personal whim to power. Additionally, the malodorous, dolorous odium and tedium contrived by these opiate odéons gives us the strength to abdicate our co-culpability as part of mediated reality's constituency. It is recommended to follow inoculation with a period of quarantine, media blackout, suffering shakes and withdrawal as a contrast and a means of assessing just how deeply the hook is driven. This time also allows for critical analysis, for an examination of the poetics, structure and imperatives of propaganda.

In this endeavor, Xen resembles its predecessor, Zen, in the sense that dispelling illusion is the first step towards illumination. Where we differ is in our insistence that learning how illusion works allows us to make illusion work for us. It is this ability to use the techniques of artifice and chicanery as tools for self-transformation and modification which constitutes a large part of our sensual enlightenment. Not only does proficiency in the principles of influence give us a greater ability to mutate, evolve and define our own terms, but it very nearly renders us invulnerable to subliminal coercion. And, of course, there's great fun to be had in the abuse of this knowledge.

Properly grasped, the ad will set you free. Fascination, fragmentation, juxtaposition, associations, acceleration, fantasy, stimulation, simulation, and malarkey can all be means of control or means of liberation. You can set yourself up as factory, marketer, distributor, and consumer all in one mind—an economy of autonomy. All sales are based in seduction of some sort, so quit lingering over catalogues jacking off and learn to seduce yourself. Tantric capitalism.

In broadcast media, flashcuts, sound bites and the spurious associations of product placements create a fragmentation of space and time, an acceleration that once made us spin. Even our physical environment can be turned against us psychologically, just as the VC used the jungle itself as the most demoralizing weapon of the Vietnam war. Office architecture reinforces dominance and submission routines; malls are constructed in convoluted configurations as cockeyed as a carny's house of mirrors, forcing the culturally starved into a feeding frenzy of need. The border between the suburb, shopping center and theme park is blurred, designed to breed disorientation and intensify the dissolution of volition. Under the domination of commerce, unexpected juxtapositions allow us to transfer romance from displays to products. We make infinite associations devoid of any material consideration other than casting the product as a star in our momentary drama. Once liberated from exploitative functions, however, the tools of the spectacle become the toys and the war toys of the festival. Allowing the chimerical maelstrom of commodity-driven carnival to overwhelm the senses becomes a psychedelic act; a passion play in which any setting can be transformed into an acid funhouse.

Xen employs the techniques of the spectacle in the service of revolutionary festival with impetuosity, alacrity, and irony. The difference is that we're indifferent to influencing you. It's a fucking waste of time and effort. We want you to get busy influencing yourself. Identity is free. You have nothing to lose but your chain stores.

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John T. Unger poet

I'm best known as an artist and designer. Relaxing makes me tense, so I tend to put in a lot of hours on diverse projects.

Before becoming a visual artist, I spent 15 years as a poet. I studied poetry at Interlochen Arts Academy, Naropa, Stone Circle and on the streets. I performed my work for years at Stone Circle, solo shows, poetry readings, and at Lollapalooza in 1996.

I still write poems, but only if I can make them fit the constraints ofTwitter.

Mobile: 231.584.2710 (9 to 5 PST only) | Email me

Art IS my day job

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