Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Book Group: Not Buying It

Early on, the author recognizes the need to seek out Freud: "[The fetish] becomes pathological when the longing for the fetish passes beyond the point of being merely a necessary condition attached to the sexual object and actually takes the place of the normal aim."

Judith Levine goes on to say,

"I replace the word sexual with the word athletic (sports having supplanted sex in the American erotic imagination anyway),and yikes, I am looking at myself in the mirror. The SmartWool socks became necessary to the attainment of my athletic aim. Then passion for the socks replaced the aim itself--I opted not to ski rather than ski without the product purchased to make skiing most enjoyable."

Judith and her life partner decide to stop buying anything non-essential for a year. She was somewhat fed up with the shopping is patriotic meme, as well as the frazzle and the expense of holiday shopping. She didn't do it to prove a point, though it's pretty clear that as an established writer she has a deal on the book that would be her life for a year. She wasn't trying to decrease her ecological footprint, though that did factor in. She simply wanted to make it a practice not to shop for a year.

Almost to a person, the people in my book group reported thinking about their purchases as they read this book. I know I found it funny that the very day we met to talk about it, I purchased a new bed at Ikea. Considering how much the new bed helped my back, it was a necessary purchase. One woman commented that this book had sparked more conversations with people than any other book she'd read. Even by sight, the book has inspired a change of lifestyle for some people, as exemplified in this Portland Tribune article.

One of the things the pair stopped buying as unnecessary, Q-tips. If I were to do this, that would make the necessity list. I'm serious. If I were (completely unlikely) to join the Peace Corps and go to some country where I could not get Q-tips, I would pack enough for the two years.

Lest you think this was a shop-aholic going cold turkey, Ms. Levine actually didn't spend a whole lot before this exercise in restraint. They are both self-employed without much overhead. They don't even own a microwave. Still, not buying it did invoke emotional responses, notably, boredom. She tries using it, invoking Walter Benjamin, "Boredom is the threshold to great deeds."

I don't blame the author...this seems to be the trendy thing to do among non-fiction authors... she invokes Plato or some other classic philosopher, and relates the wisdom to her own words. She and many other contemporary authors do this as if whatever Plato says is easily interpreted and fits her point exactly. Ummm, I don't think so. I wouldn't dare speak with such certainty or finality about the classics, especially with such throw-off lines. One reason they're the classics is that they still provoke various interpretations. Egregious example:

"So the Left argues (alongside Plato) that a good society is one that provides everyone with his essential bodily needs; spiritual satisfaction will naturally follow material satiation. The religious Right (alongside Descartes and the tree-living extremes of the environmentalist movement) sees spiritual salvation in the mortification of the flesh."

One of the author's friends suggested a "don't buy, don't tell" policy. This created an amusing conundrum when it comes to friends, and another emotional hang-up to explore. They must bow out of invitations to dinner (they live part time in New York), or navigate the generosity of their friends. I think the author was just beginning to get the value in acceptance...there is a generosity in accepting what is offered. Middle-class Americans have issues with accepting gifts, whether it's dinner out, or compliments. We especially have a problem with asking. Judith put herself in a tizzy when she found herself at the ski slopes (a necessity I presume, or pre-paid) without needed ski wax. She couldn't buy it, and it was the hardest thing in the world just to ask the clerk if she could borrow it.

She says, "Sometimes I feel like a mendicant Buddhist among Calvinists. Other times, as a Jew, I know what I am: a schnorrer, the kind of person who always happens to drop by just when supper is being put on the table."

In the end, she says about choosing this experience,
"On the theory that you don't think about your water til your well is drained, my partner, Paul, and I vowed to go a whole year purchasing nothing but the barest necessities. If I got really thirsty, I reasoned, I might learn something about how and why I quench that thirst."

Something to try for a while, I think, but maybe not for a whole year, not for me. I've been there, bare necessities, not so much by choice.

Like any mindful vow, in my experience, what she learned was not what she expected:
"To my surprise, the transformation was not from Consumer to navel-gazing Anti-Consumer. It was from Consumer to Citizen."

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