A friend is visiting; he is a smart person, yet he forgets I am an idiot, neglects the fact I can’t concentrate on anything for more than 30 seconds or so, and he attempts to have an intelligent conversation with me.
He does this while I am watching TV, something I do pretty much all the time. To avoid a major confrontation, I hit the mute button on the remote and turn to a position where I can pretend to look at him, all the while keeping an eye on the screen in case something bright and shiny appears there. Bright and shiny things fascinate me, especially when they move.
My friend’s topic: the possibility that our culture is now defined nearly exclusively by consumerism, consumption and a slavish relationship with corporate America and its many diversions— no longer by reading, a love of art, conversation, history. He asserts that, in fact, our culture relies more and more on an ignorance of history and the embrace of kitsch; on ignorance of the values available to the careful reader of literature and philosophy; on education geared to a productive role in a corporate machine; on the monetary and investment value of art; on the total immersion of the individual in an ocean of transient goods and exposure to a relentless barrage of ideas so shallow they are no more than slogans.
As he mentions this, I notice a woman on the screen is blasting the living daylights out of her thighs and ass with a medieval looking device — all elastic bands and springs. It must work, her thighs are magnificent. Who wouldn’t want thighs like that? Check out that ass: a taut flesh bubble! She is in absolute control of her appearance and, therefore, of her universe.
My friend is still talking.
… that, with each passing day, what it means to be an American — and increasingly, a citizen of the globe — is defined by what one purchases, what one owns, where one lives, what one does to produce the income necessary to own more things. What we are is increasingly defined by our cooperative response to corporate demands.
In short, he asks, are we trapped in a net cast by increasingly dominant commercial entities and a parallel economic elite, lured in by an appeal to a logo-burdened sense of self — a sense of self built with a short horizon line, resting on a foundation of indulgence and immediate gratification?
A guy on the tube is selling a product that removes mold from grout. Like magic! Let’s say you’ve got a moldy bathroom. Well, first, what does that say about you? Nothing good, you can be sure. Your neighbors, after all, do not have moldy bathrooms. One application of the magic formula and you can invite the Queen of England to have dinner in your bathroom and you will feel not an iota of shame. Buy it. Now.
My friend is still talking.
… could it be our major media are designed to shift consciousness to topics and events structured to divert us from consideration of certain realities — the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor; the intentional attempt to destroy public education with governmental mandates; the steady undermining of states rights and local control; voter regulations that exclude minorities and the poor; damage to the environment, the shrinking middle class, the commercialization and homogenization of politics, the increasing lack of loyalty of giant business interests to any and all nations, the impending serfdom of the overwhelming majority of the planet’s population? Has our news become entertainment of a perverse sort, designed like sitcoms, as mindless filler between commercials, as a source that acts to confirm certified opinions rather than to add the facts necessary to ensure opinion keeps pace with changing realities?
Out of the corner of my eye, I watch a Hummer blast through a major league berm of snow. I decide I want a silver Hummer, with special hip-hop wheels and rims. My new vehicle will feature a sound system capable of breaking glass at a distance of 100 yards and I will have a television system installed so members of my posse can watch music videos as we blast our way through banks of snow, effortlessly, at 50 miles per hour and 12 miles per gallon. We will impress many, many people. I will be important, because my vehicle is huge. Bigger than yours.
My attention wanders momentarily back to my friend’s monologue.
… look at national politics, for example. Democrat or Republican? Isn’t it kind of foolish to think there is a great difference between the two? The media’s been in a frenzy to underline the right versus left scenario, the liberal versus conservative distinction, to prime people’s gullibility, massage them as they swallow the distinction because it is made personal, shaped to fit their ego needs. But, upon examination, isn’t each faction as beholding as the other to big money, its interests and demands? Haven’t people, and their elected officials, been conned into adopting false political identities, their energies diverted to an empty, loud discourse characterized by exaggeration, anger and falsehood? Haven’t people been conned into becoming political caricatures and turned against each other so they don’t get together and turn on those who really deserve the ire: the big-money interests who buy elections for their pawns?
Suddenly, there it is, on the screen: something truly revolutionary. I halt the conversation.
“You want meaning? You want substance?” I ask my friend. “Don’t hand me your kitsch-as culture crapola, or your all-politics-is corrupt shtick. Regardez, mon ami. I mean, check it out; you want meaning, depth? Look, it’s incredible.”
There it is, all bright and shiny, held in the hands of healthy, fit-looking people, who’ve gathered on a snazzy patio, each illuminated by the strongest of suns, happy in only the way fully satiated consumers can be. It’s the Plate Caddy. Available only through a one-time television offer. All major credit cards accepted.
Never again will your party guests have to fumble with a risky combination of plate, eating utensils, glass or cup. Think about it: you can throw a luau, a cocktail party or a holiday bash at the new, grotesquely large house you built on former ranch or farm land, and you never have to worry about a guest ruining a new outfit from Lord and Taylor with spilt food and drink.
How? With the Plate Caddy! Could anyone criticize consumer culture once they’ve seen this beauty? It’s a space-age piece of molded plastic that looks like it’s been delivered straight from the bridge of The Enterprise. Look at it — imagine Kirk and Spock and the rest of the interstellar gang putting their chow on these sleek wonders. The plastic plate is locked in place in the center of the caddy; a cup holder makes the drinks secure as the Enterprise goes to Warp 7. There’s a utensil slot on the side for knife, fork and spoon, just in case the crew needs to draw their phasers and eliminate a Klingon or two.
Who says kitsch is lacking in depth and not related to fundamental needs? Who wants Chaucer or Rembrandt, who cares about Toynbee or Spengler, when you’ve got a creation like the Plate Caddy?
Plus, each caddy has a special, color-coded “snack pick” with it so you’ll always know which caddy goes with which guest when it comes time to circulate with another platter of store-bought meatballs.
I ponder the purchase of a set of plate caddies. I’m dealing with a heavy-duty, potentially life-changing decision. I admit it, I say to my friend, I’m rabidly antisocial. I inhabit a televised space, full of jingles, low interest rates and special, one-time offers. I have little time left for real people. So, should the occasion arise when I actually allow people into my house and serve them food, how many caddies will I need?
I can’t foresee inviting more than six people for dinner, and that’s stretching it. After all, I have a couch and two chairs in the living room, all placed directly in front of the television set. The idea of eight or more guests is out of the question: any more than that and someone would not be able to see the screen.
Unfortunately, the caddies are sold in sets of four, so I will have to purchase two sets, keeping two caddies aside in case I lose or break one of the essential six. (Break a space age plastic plate caddy? Fat chance!)
I’ll have my caddies sent next-day express delivery and, when they arrive, I’ll surprise my socially deprived wife and throw a caddy party. I’ll set the event to coincide with the prime hours on the Shopping Network. Or perhaps we’ll share a repeat of the final episode of Friends, given that all the guests are Anglo and none are poor.
What to have? What is the perfect food for a plate caddy and an evening of rocking good commercial fun?
Obviously something that, with the ordinary plate-cup-utensil combo, would set the stage for disaster. Something hot and messy, hard to manage without the help of modern design. Something in harmony with contemporary tastes, with the consumer culture, with globalization. Something kitschy.
Sloppy Joes. This is a fine one, both tastewise and in terms of symbolic meaning.
Think about it: A huge packing plant located somewhere in Nebraska uses uninsured undocumented workers to grind random chunks of animals together to produce the meat I’ll use as my base. How about some tomatoes, genetically engineered and grown to the point where they are full-sized, green and hard, then turned red through the scientific application of a gas? Oh, yeah.
And I’ll need some onion and garlic and green pepper, again genetically engineered to create the right appearance (Flavor? What’s flavor?), sprayed repeatedly and kept bug free. Liquid smoke, produced in a test tube? OK, bring it on. Some spices finish off the list, the pungent goodies harvested somewhere in Southeast Asia by 10-year-olds working for less than a dollar per day. I’ll plop the saucy melange on top of hamburger buns (flour from GMO wheat) saturated with preservatives and other additives, baked thousands at a time at an automated facility outside Spokane. For a beverage: simulated orange drink, chock full of artificial flavor and colorings. Just like the astronauts drink!
“That ought to suit the new cultural elite you’re so worried about, eh?” I say to my weak-kneed intellectual friend.
No response. In my zeal, I hadn’t noticed he was gone.
Oh well. I hit a button on the remote. The sound is back on.
A talking head on the news says gasoline prices are on the rise and another Hollywood duo has terminated their romance. The Congress has yet to do anything about anything, and L’IL Bow Wow has advice for kids thinking about dropping out of school.
There’s a new plastic wrap that seals with the touch of a finger.
Folks are twerking like there’s no tomorrow.
Three more Americans died in Afghanistan.
No child is left behind.
“You deserve a break today …”
Get it now, with nothing down.