Modern Man in Search of a Sofa

It is 1985, and a corporate colleague tells me his grandfather and father had built the house he would come to grow up in just before World War II, having ordered it out of a Sears Catalog. The house was delivered as a kit, with plans, in parts, via rail to a nearby town, where it was then trucked to the lot where they put it together. Yes, “some assembly required.”

We were reading “In Search of Excellence” in the mid 80s, at all levels of the organization. But what many workers were actually in search of was a job with benefits that paid at least enough to buy a house for the fam and stuff to put in it, including sofa in the living room, pram in the entry, and car in the garage. For my part, I had recently come to realize the community college adjunct job I’d been working full time since the close of the 70s wasn’t going to produce such excellent results.

In the first half of the 20th Century, the Sears Catalog served a bit like today’s Amazon. But I searched Amazon this morning to see if I could buy a house online and have it delivered, and all I found were backyard sheds. Sears discontinued its catalog division in the early 1990s. It’s hard to stay close to the customer when the customer is constantly on the move. In any case, most corporations (and stores and shops) only affect concern for the customer; what they’re really after is a share of the customer’s wallet, or, in Amazon’s case, the whole wallet. But what happens when customers no longer pack wallets?

Or no longer want stuff, or at least, not so much stuff. Or still want some stuff, but different stuff. In other words, does Amazon sell souls? Or, as Jung put in his “Modern Man in Search of a Soul”: “No psychic value can disappear without being replaced by another of equivalent intensity” (209).

There are, it is argued, certain efficiencies that promote the use of Amazon over the emotional expense of leaving one’s safe harbor for the voyage out to the mall or downtown or the shops of Hawthorne. Why should consumers feel shame about where or how or for what they shop? In any case, it appears most feel no shame. But is that because they are driven by unconscious desires, wants that may be manipulated by elevator music, trance inducing ads, or atavistic urges to covet one’s neighbor’s goods?

I don’t know, but it often seems shoppers are led to the market like the Eloi in “The Time Machine” are pulled to the Morlocks. In return for the seemingly safe setting the Morlocks have created, the Eloi serve themselves up as food to sustain the Morlockian system.

The Eloi and the Morlock

Reading Pierre Bourdieu last night, after looking thru ”The Time Machine” and “Fahrenheit 451″ yesterday.

“In the case of artists and writers, we find that the literary field is contained within the field of power where it occupies a dominated position. (In common and much less adequate parlance: artists and writers, or intellectuals more generally, are a ‘dominated fraction of the dominant class.’)” Bourdieu, Pierre. (1992). ”An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology” (p.104).

Wells ends ”The Time Machine” with a pessimistic vision of the future, more optimistic though than he probably considered: “And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers – shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle – to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man” (p. 141), for “The Eloi, like the Carlovingian kings, had decayed to a mere beautiful futility” (p. 89).

In “On Television,” we were struck by this Bourdieu thought: “There is nothing more difficult to convey than reality in all its ordinariness” (p. 21). Certainly not when you’ve got less than a minute to convey. Bradbury summarized in fiction the same power and effects of television that Bourdieu discusses in “On Television,” toward the end of Fahrenheit 451, in the scene where the police, unable to find the real Montag in the attention-span-time-requirement of the evening news, settle for an innocent, unknown citizen, and the television reports they’ve got Montag, while the real Montag is now uselessly free.