A friend was recently telling me how a six-ounce can of Sprite in a Miami hotel cost 20 times more than his suitcase, found at a synagogue garage sale in Maine. The disparity in costs launched a notion, or an image really, of our culture: a hand, a pack of cigarettes, a diploma, a robotic dog, each stripped of context – iconic body parts and possessions with only a price for reference. When we covet objects, we attach emotional significance to them, yet by uncoupling the objects from any emotion they become caricatures, virtually meaningless and with little true function. The combination of image and text offers economy of time and space – a picture and message flat as a comic book, succinct as a sound bite.
In today’s consumption-based society, the costs of living are not a question of survival but of fulfillment. We are, all of us, incomplete, or so advertisers have convinced us. There is a persistent, nagging imperfection and no matter how much we acquire, we’re perpetually incomplete because we’re modeling ourselves on an illusory image. It’s no wonder so many suffer identity crises. When we add and subtract hair, weight, breasts, teeth, lips, organs and so on, the boundaries between object and self blur into a mixture of what we once were and what we’ve consumed.
Materialism is an ugly word to some, but there is an advantage to valuing things above all else. In America, there is little chance of civil war or ethnic cleansing. Even religious persecution is unlikely because of this one, overriding interest that unites all Americans: our pursuit of things, our collective need to consume. After 9/11, as part of his effort to restore normalcy to the American psyche and, more importantly, the economy, President Bush called upon his fellow citizens to support their country, not by fighting or buying war bonds, but by exercising the inalienable right to shop. We all have this right; some might say it’s our patriotic duty.