Commodification and Amusement: Postman on Television and Print Media

Recently, I finished reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. While this work was published in the 1980s and focuses on analyzing the effects of the rise television as the dominant mode of communication on public discourse, it still raise many insightful points. Postman’s central argument is that the typographic age of the 18th century (the age of the printed word) was able to foster rational argument, and a healthy democratic discourse while the age of television fails in this regard as we are bombarded with incoherent mixed messages, information for information’s sake and even when television tries to be serious it fails, because even the most serious program must be entertaining. Television as a medium cannot escape from the fact that it is a vehicle for amusement or entertainment. All of these points seem to me to be more or less valid, but Postman fails markedly in describing the way that print media and television both are connected to the logic of commodification. Thus his analysis is insufficiently historical as it takes two points in history and connects them without fully establishing the relation of these historical eras to one another.

Postman does provide a historical explanation of sorts, as he points to telegraphy and photography as forerunners that began the march towards television. Telegraphy conquered space and allowed messages to be shared across far distances very quickly and easily, while photography moved the focus away from the printed word and onto the image. But unfortunately this is merely a technological explanation; it just shows that there were other technologies that arose before television that made the way for it, but it does not show why the general technological trend towards conquering space and the image themselves replaced the printed word. This would be analogous to explaining the rise of automobile merely by reference to the horsedrawn carriage, but without asking why human beings have desired to have vehicles that move them from one place to another as quickly as possible. Consequently, while he gestures towards a historical explanation he does not go into enough detail in showing the relation between the rise of print media and the rise of television.

One important factor that unites the development of print media and television that Postman does not discuss is the logic of commodification. The logic of commodification renders all things whether tangible or intangible into objects that can be bought and sold on the market. This logic seems to be built into capitalism itself as more and more objects, ideas and practises are transformed into something that can be sold at a profit. The idea of selling bodily fluids would be unheard of in the 18th century for numerous reasons while today this is a common practise in the USA. The rise of the commodification of bodily matter cannot be disconnected from the rise of print media and television as a dominant mode of communication, as both are linked to an overarching trend in which all relations must be modeled on the relationship between commodities and buyers and sellers.

One way in which Postman fails to identify the link between the logic of commodification and the emergence of television is that Postman compares the typographic medium with television as if they were polar opposites, rather than seeing that the development of the medium of print is a forerunner to the development of television in that television serves to further entrench the logic of commodification that print itself had already served to entrench.  This can be seen in the way that Postman unequivocally praises print media for its rationality while decrying all television as a mere tool for amusement; he clearly does not identify any link between the two in terms of their relation to commodification, but sees them in an almost binary fashion. However, the link between the two forms of media are quite evident as while print media in the 18th century may have had a seriousness that much television does not have, it was still a commodity. Before print, mass copies of communications could not be created and so the idea of selling communication products as a commodity to the masses made no sense. It was only after the emergence of the printing press, and written communications could be produced on a mass scale that the idea of selling communications about the events of the day as a commodity began to make sense. Before the printing press the clergy largely was occupied with maintaining knowledge through the activities of scribes and others. These groups would maintain collections, but these collections were merely a store of wisdom for the limited few with access to them, rather than a source of information to sell to people. In this sense while there are many qualitative differences between print media and television there is a deep connection between the two because they both are part of an overall development in capitalist society towards the ever growing reach of commodification.

Furthermore, if we compare television to typographic media we see the way in which television further entrenched what print media had begun to entrench. As we just noted typographic media like any other can be bought and sold, and it was bought and sold during the 18th century when it was at its peak, but because typographic media was still rooted to a particular place because of the absence of technologies like the telegraph it was not a fully mass produced commodity. In the 18th century the news in Pennsylvania covered events relating to life in that area, and in this sense information about the context of life in Pennsylvania was bought and sold, but information about life in this area was not sold to those in Copenhagen as a commodity, as there was no simple means of getting the information to Copenhagen quickly. Consequently, the sale of the information was geographically limited. Postman notes the way in which news was confined to a context of life in the typographic age, but he does not note that the decontextualization of news so that it can be sent anywhere on the world is part of the overall logic of commodification that extends from the initial step of commodifying information for sale. The movement to wider distribution of news as commodity was made possible by the telegraph, but the reason the telegraph and television caught on as an important technology for distributing news was because of the already existing historical trend towards commodification of information that the printing press had served to establish. It is somewhat doubtful that the news of the day would have become the commodity for global consumption that it has become today if print media had not already transformed information into a commodity for sale to a mass audience. Consequently, the telegraph and television merely took the logic of commodification in communications to a further limit.

Despite all that I have said above, I still think Postman’s book is worth a read, but I wish he would have spent more time discussing the way in which typographic media and television are part of the same historical trend, rather than fixating merely on the ways in which they are different. By taking this step he would have been better able to show the roots that underlie both developments.

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The Pathology of Market Care Substitution: “High Touch Service” and “The Girlfriend Experience”

Many businesses pride themselves on offering so called “high touch service.” With high touch service the client not only pays for a particular product or service; she is treated in a personable manner in which her server not only provides her with a needed good or service, but appears as someone who genuinely cares about the client, rather than someone who is merely providing a good or service in exchange for payment. The service provider in this context thus appears as more of a friend or associate than a stranger. In this sense a corollary of the “high touch service” is the notion of “the girlfriend experience” in the sex trade. Like high touch service a client pays a sex trade worker to appear as if she cares about her client and is in a mutually committed relation with him. What unites both high touch service, and the girlfriend experience is that the client pays for a substitution of a pure market relation in which one provides goods or services in exchange for payment, for the appearance of a relationship that transcends market relations in which the client and service provider encounter one another in a relationship of mutual affection and concern.

For the sake of simplicity I will refer to this behaviour of substituting a relation of buyer and seller for the appearance of a relation of affect and care as “market care substitution.” I know this neologism does not have the same pleasant ring as “high touch service,” but it should suffice for this piece of writing. In what follows I will try to at least partially set out what the relevance of market-care substitution is.

One thing that the presence of market care substitution reveals is the way in which market-driven societies encourage a distorted understanding of the good and are based on a distorted relation to the good. Market care substitution seems to arise in any market driven culture as we can see from the way in which both the food and financial service industry operate in North America. Focus is always placed on making the client feel as if they were deeply cared for, rather than just as a source of revenue that must be provided with certain things. Consequently market care substitution seems to be quite prevalent in market-driven societies.

Now that it is clear that market care substitution seems to arise in market-driven societies we can turn to how this affects the agent participating in these relations. When I participate in a relation of market-care substitution as buyer or consumer I must separate myself into two distinct elements. One element is the buying self who decides that it wants to pay for the appearance of a relation of care and affect. The other element of the self is that which enjoys the appearance that has been bought. In this sense we must separate the economically rational “I“ that pursue what it wants from the “I“ that enjoys the appearance. This occurs as in order for the self to enjoy the appearance of the caring relation it must suspend its relation with the enjoying element, so the enjoying element can enjoy the appearance in ignorance of the fact that this appearance is a mere appearance. For if the self remained as a single entity, it would know that the relation was merely apparent and this would sully the enjoyment of the apparently caring relation.

In itself this separation of the economically rational “I“ from the enjoying “I“ may not seem like a particularly large problem, but on further reflection there is a certain perversity about this mode of operation that encourages a distorted understanding of the good. If we ask ourselves what a good life is we don’t think that it is one with lots of pleasant experiences of the appearance of affection or care, rather we tend to think that the actual development of relations of care and affection that mutually enrich and develop the interlocutor’s lives constitutes a central aspect of the good life. Some might disagree with me that most have this understanding of the good life, but I question this because when a friend betrays us we are upset with them not because they have failed to keep up an appearance of care and concern, but because they have shown that they actually do not care in the way we thought he or she did. This shows that what is actually valued and enriches the lives of friends is not the simple appearance of affection and care, but the presence of an actually constituted relation of affection and care.

From the preceding we can see that the practise of market care substitution seems not to fit with this understanding of the good life as through market care substitution what is sought is the mere appearance of affection and care, rather than its genuine presence. Thus, given that market-driven societies seem to encourage market care substitution it also encourages a distorted understanding of the good as participation in these kinds of relations will reinforce the tendency to see the good as the appearance of relations of affection and care rather than their genuine presence. If our economic lives are spent pursuing the appearance of caring relations this will only make us more vulnerable to viewing the good life as consisting in the presence of relations that appear to be genuinely imbued with the spirit of mutual concern and affection, and this is clearly a distortion.

In addition, market care substitution leads to a distorted understanding of the good because it encourages us to see the good as a separate object that we as subjects come to possess just as we hold a pen in our hands. This is an erroneous understanding of the good as we long to become one with the good through our participate in it. To explain when, as with market care substitution, we have a self or “I“ that reasons and decides standing in opposition to the self or “I“ that enjoy we have a situation in which the good always remains separate from me. The enjoying self may momentarily possess the good and ravish and enjoy it, but the good always remains as an object separate from myself that I have in my possession. On the other hand in actually constituted friendships I do not possess the good as an object, instead I, in some sense, become one with the good through my participation in it. The good of friendship is not an object for me and an object for my friend, rather it is something that we mutually share and participate in. Furthermore, this participation partially constitutes our relationship as a friendship.

Now this raises the question of what our actual relation to the good is as I have only shown that friendship does not fit the model of the good as something we possess. Nonetheless I think that the understanding described in terms of friendship more adequately represents our relation to the good as beyond the relationships we have to others many other goods are best described as things that we participate in, rather than things we possess. For example let us look at virtues like courage, generosity and justice as these on most accounts can be considered to be genuine goods. The courageous person is not a person who exists independently who happens to have the skill to be courageous, but a person whose identity is partially constituted by their courageous spirit. In a sense this person participates in the essence of courage through their very identity as courage is a quality shared by them and many others both living, dead and to be born. If a person merely had the skill to be courageous as something separate from their identity they would not necessarily have the virtue of courage as they could choose not to deploy that skill. So thus our relation to virtue goods is not one of possession, but of something that constitutes our identity and that we participate in. As a result it seems to me that it is quite plausible and convincing to view our relation to the good not as that of possessor to object, but rather as something that we participate in and to some extent become one with. Therefore, the activity of market care substitution is based on a distortion of our actual relation to the good, as it always places the good as an object that stands at a distance from us that we need to possess, rather than as something that we can commune with and participate in. In addition as was noted earlier participation in relations of market care substitution will reinforce a distorted understanding of the good, as when we participate in these relations we tend to reinforce the vision of the good as an object separate from us that we possess.

Do you agree with the basic thrust of this essay?

Is our relation to goods distinct from our relation to the good?

Are there any other important aspects of market care substitution that have been ignored and should be recognized?

Thanks for reading and please respond to the questions if you wish to.

A Polemic on Modern Liberal Democratic Politics

It seems fairly obvious that a political system in a society needs to have a way of guaranteeing that the long term interests of the society, including the interests of future generations are taken care of and respected (intergenerational justice.) This seems to simply flow from the recognition that all other things equal we want a society to develop to the fullest of its potential, and to be structured so that future generations are not sacrificed for the present desires of existing generations.  According to some, like Burke, one way of ensuring this is through the presence of an aristocratic land-owning class. This class is tied to their estate and has a long term interest in the well-being and health of their state as they want to pass on a fine legacy to their descendants.

However, nothing like this class exists in modern liberal democracies, so what methods do liberal democracies have to ensure long term interests and intergenerational justice? One method is through trying to create institutions that serve to ensure that these long term interests are safeguarded. However, I will argue that in themselves institutions are not enough to ensure long term interests and intergenerational justice whether in an aristocracy, mixed constitution or a democracy. Instead, a particular kind of culture and public ethic needs to exist that actively condemns sacrificing genuine long term interests to immediate self-interest. As such a culture will help to ensure the long term good of the society is actively maintained.

To serve long term interest and the justice of future generations some modern liberal democratic states have tried to create certain institutions to secure these goods. One such example of this is the US Senate.  In contrast to the House of Representatives in which Representatives have a two year term US Senators have a term of six years. Part of the justification of having these two bodies separate is that the House of Representatives would tend to be more dominated by the needs of political expediency as members of this body have to be extremely concerned with how they vote as their term is so short that they are likely to be punished in an election if they vote against their constituent’s avowed interests. Consequently, members of this legislative body would be more likely to simply vote in a way that got them re-elected rather than in a way that necessary served the long term interest of the community. Contrastingly according to this justification due to the fact that senators have a six year term they are more free to vote according to their best judgment about the interests of the community as their term is long enough that the senator can show their constituents that while their constituents may have initially disagreed with the senator’s actions, his or her actions are actually supportive of their interests, and the long term interest of the state.

While this justification of the US Senate is somewhat plausible, given the current state of US politics it seems that this institutional structure is not enough to secure intergenerational justice and long term interests.  Currently, in the US, at all levels of government including the Senate political expedience seems to dominate over genuine deliberation concerning long term interests. The deliberations within both the lower and upper house have become but theatrical precursors to an election in which senators strut before voters and make sure that their actions translate into electability rather than ensuring long term interests and intergenerational justice.

If the example provided by the US Senate is at all typical then it seems that institutions structured in a particular way are not enough to ensure some semblance of intergenerational justice and the safeguarding of long term interests. Even when these institutions are present we tend to see politics in modern liberal democracies dominated by political game playing that serves to ensure an official is re-elected rather than that long term interests are taken care of.

One element that can ameliorate this problem in modern liberal democracies is a culture and public ethic that condemns political activity that puts immediate self-interest ahead of the pursuit of long term interests and intergenerational justice. The trouble with modern liberal democracies is not just that institutions are not perfectly setup but that as a whole we have come to accept the unabashed pursuit of self-interest within the bounds of law as legitimate. Just as we do not condemn someone for leaving a company at a challenging time for that company because they have received a tempting job offer, so to in politics we do not condemn voters, or politicians for pursuing their immediate self-interest at the expense of long term interests and intergenerational justice. There is a mild distaste for the crass pursuit of self-interest by politicians, but by and large we do not condemn them and view these agents as having violated some important principle. Instead we see it as the norm for politicians to act this way, and while this norm may bother us we are resigned to accept it as natural.

However, if a culture condemns political activity that pursues immediate self-interest at the expense of all other goods and positively affirms the value of defending long term interests and intergenerational justice, then this would help to ensure that long term interests and intergenerational justice were taken care of.  In this kind of culture all will be more likely to recognize the value of the goods of long term societal interests and intergenerational justice, and act from these principles as the culture affirms them, and consequently people would be honoured for ensuring long term interests and intergenerational justice, and dishonoured for sacrificing these goods before the goddess of immediate self-interest. Therefore, a certain kind of culture and public ethic would help to ensure that politics in a liberal democracy serves long term interests and intergenerational justice.

Similarly, this point does not merely apply to liberal democracies, but to other forms of government as well. What ensures that long term interests are served in an aristocracy is not the presence of a landed gentry itself,  but rather the presence of a landed gentry that recognizes that as powerful members of their community they have the responsibility to ensure the long term interests of their state by taking care of their estate and subjects. If an aristocrat in an aristocracy were to act based on crass self-interest they would not ensure long term interest and intergenerational justice as there is no reason inherent in being a member of the landed gentry that determines that one will take care of one’s estate and subject and pass on a fine legacy to one’s descendent and future subjects. What ensures that the landed gentry secure long term interests and intergenerational justice is the culture and public ethic that they act from, not the institution of the landed gentry itself.

However, in putting forward an argument for this kind of political culture that condemns sacrificing long term interests for immediate self-interest we are faced with a huge challenge on three fronts. The first and most obvious challenge is how such a culture comes into being while respecting the independence and freedom of persons. Many historical attempts by states to make a certain kind of culture have been utterly disastrous and cruel such as the Terror in the French Revolution and attempts to assimilate groups like Canadian First Nations. This should make us very cautious about how state policy is used to try to purposefully shape a culture.

The second challenge is that acts that pursue the long term interest and intergenerational justice are not immediately transparent. It is fairly easy for a politician, voter or activist to do something that only furthers their immediate self-interest and yet present it as something that furthers long term interests; in the case of a politician they just need to espouse an argument that shows how their actions will serve long term interests even if this argument is particularly facile or weak. Consequently, it is not always easy to determine when we are dealing with overt acts of immediate self-interest versus at the expense of long term interests and acts that are meant to pursue the overall good of the community including its long term interests and intergenerational justice.

The other challenge is more particular to modern liberal democracy, and that is that these societies carry a heavy mark of consumerism, and consumerism is dominated by the pursuit of immediate self-interest and instant gratification. This raises the question of if the kind of political culture that I am gesturing towards is compatible with our current consumerist economic way of life as there is something quite schizophrenic about rejecting the uncontrolled pursuit of self-interest within the bounds of law within the economic sphere, while rejecting it in the political sphere.  Unfortunately, if it turns out that these two modes of activity are incompatible then we will have to choose between a politics that can help us secure intergenerational justice as well as long term interests and the maintenance of our current economic practises.

Capitalism, Commodification and Social Practises

One very common critique of capitalism is that capitalism encourages problematic forms of commodification that degrade social practises. This degradation of social practises occurs as practises that are supposed to operate according to non-market logic, begin to operate according to the logic of the market. For example, the development of commercial surrogacy indicates this trend as a couple, or an individual, will pay a woman to give birth to a child for them, just as they would pay someone to do their dry cleaning. This degrades the social practise of pregnancy according to some as pregnancy is a form of labour that is uniquely directed at care for one’s own child. To sell or buy this labour as a commodity is to fail to understand that the proper end of the labour of pregnancy is not monetary profit, but care of the child. It is an objectification and commodification of the labour of pregnancy.

Another similar argument points out that the transformation of the vocation of the artist into a job as a result of capitalist development can also cause problematic forms of commodification. The practise of the creation of art is at its ideal when it is directed towards the uncompromising creation of beauty, rather than towards the market logic of gain or profit, but if one is dependent for one’s subsistence on the creation of art than the point of your artistic creation will be infected by the desire for gain. In this case you are not creating for the sake of beauty, but for the sake of survival, and consequently when being an artist becomes a profession and thus one’s source of subsistence it can degrade the practise of artistic creation.  Somerset Maugham put this quite eloquently in Of Human Bondage when he says:

“You will hear people say that poverty is the best spur to the artist. They have never felt the iron of it in their flesh. They do not know how mean it makes you. It exposes you to endless humiliation, it cuts your wings, it eats into your soul like a cancer. It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank, and independent. I pity with all my heart the artist, whether he writes or paints, who is entirely dependent for subsistence upon his art.”

Many may disagree with either or both of my examples and suggest that neither of these forms of activity have a proper end, and that just as there is nothing wrong with practising law to support oneself, there is nothing wrong with selling one’s reproductive capacities or one’s artistic capacities for this reason.

I myself am unsure of whether there is anything inherently wrong with selling one’s reproductive capacities or one’s artistic capacities for the sake of survival or mere gain for that matter, but the expansion of commodification to all practises is problematic, for the alternative reason, that it threatens to destroy the multiplicity of unique goods in the world. As commodification extends more and more practises are transformed into practises that run according to the logic of the market.  The trouble with this kind of social transformation is that it makes practises that operate according to non-market principles more marginal.  By making these non-market practises more marginal the move towards greater commodification hampers elements of the human spirit that find their expression in non-market practises. For example, the commitment to scholarly research is hampered in a market society as research is turned into a deliverable that must be produced to receive an income, rather than as something that tries to better understand the world.

Our nature as humans is multifaceted and complex. We are not just clever beings who can pursue their interest in the market. Instead we are being who have a nature that reaches out towards many objects including truth, friendship, romantic love, beauty and athletic excellence, to mention a few.  Consequently, when our practises become dominated by the singular logic of the market we are rendered less, rather than more free as the practises within our society offer less of an opportunity to express and develop many of our most fundamentally human capacities.  Market mechanism may express certain elements of the human spirit such as rational self-interest, a certain form of inventiveness and discipline, but market practises do not fully reflect our nature, and thus practises that run according to non-market principles are a necessary bulwark of freedom in any capitalist society.  Consequently, while the commodification of practises may not be inherently wrong the general expansion of market principles into nearly all practises is problematic as it hampers certain valuable elements of the human soul.

Of course some may doubt the essentialist conception of human nature I have put forth, but while essentialism is frowned down upon for many historical reasons the idea that humans have a multifaceted nature that reaches out to many distinct and diverse goods seems deeply plausible. This notion seems plausible as in our lives we often find ourselves drawn to different and conflicting forms of value in the world that reflect different parts of ourselves. For example my capacity for human attachment and intimacy draws me to friends and romantic relationship, while my more general concern for others draws my concerns towards the realm of the political.

Capitalism: The Gap Between Employer Expectations and the Terms of Employment

In workplaces it is common for employees to be asked to work additional hours over and above the terms of their employment, without additional compensation, in order that the firm can meet its goals. Often when asked to do this, employees will say yes because even though they are not being adequately compensated for their work, they do not want their coworkers to have to bear an unbearable burden of the work that needs to be done, and they know that if they do not work additional hours one of their colleagues will have to do even more of the work. In this situation capitalism makes use of the laudable desire of workers to support their colleagues and prevent them from bearing an undue burden in order to exploit those very workers by drafting terms of employment that do not reflect their actual expectations of their employees.

In most jobs within the context of capitalist societies the terms of employment for a position explicitly reflect the notion that the employee will work X hours at the rate of pay Y dollars/hour. Yet, as has been noted above, at the same time, it is often expected that employee will work additional hours over and above the legally expressed terms of employment in order to meet certain goals that the firm has without additional financial compensation. That this is an expectation that employers have is clear from the way in which they praise workers who go above and beyond and work additional hours without compensation, and condemn those who just put in the hours that are expressed in their terms of employment, as if the good worker was the one who ensures that the firms meets all of its goals, and the bad worker is the one who just puts in his time without concern that the firm meets it goals.   Workers typically go along with this expectation for the reasons that they do not want to put an undue burden on their colleagues as was noted above and they do not want to be condemned as a bad worker for not doing their part to help the company grow. In this way, the commendable desire of the employee to avoid putting an undue burden on his or her fellow employees is turned against the employees themselves, and used to further the efficiency and growth of the firm.

This rendering of commendable desires into tools for the purposes of efficiency and growth is particularly exploitative in this context, because the terms of employment that the employee formally agrees with do not express the expectation of the firm. In this way the business employs people under the pretense that they will have to work X hours a week at a rate of Y dollars/hour while recognizing that the hours expressed in the terms of employment will not be sufficient for the person to complete their work.  The impetus to take this kind of approach often results from budgetary and other constraints and does not suggest that employers are evil people, but it is exploitative because in order to respect someone you must be completely forthright and honest in making legal agreements with them. Otherwise, you are merely trying to manipulate the other person, and turn them into an instrument for your own purposes, a mere means, so to speak. Yet in this case the legal agreement laying out the terms of employment does not reflect the expectations of the employer, but instead only something that the employer thinks that the employee will agree to, and thus in this instance the employer manipulates or exploits the employee.

It might be argued that in many contexts overtime is used to compensate people for the hours they work over and above those stated in their terms of employment. In response I would say that while this is true, there are many contexts where claiming overtime is not condoned because of budgetary restraints, and in which people are still expected and asked to work additional hours without compensation.  So in this context my point holds in its entirety.

In addition, someone might argue that employees are not really exploited because even though their terms of employment do not express the expectations of their employer, employees usually know that they are expected to work more hours than expressed in their terms of employment to meet the firm’s goals. So, it is not as if the employees are being fooled or duped.

Whether it is true that employees understand that the terms of employment do not reflect the employer’s expectations is an open question that could only be answered through empirical research, but it seems unlikely that this objection holds water. If all employees understand that the terms of employment they agree to do not reflect the actual expectations of their employer than there is little reason for employers to not explicitly express their expectations in the terms of employment. A defender of this objection would have to answer the question of why employers do not express their expectations in the terms of employment if this is not to try to manipulate people and make employment at their firm seem more enticing than it actually is.

One question that the preceding discussion raises is whether this form of exploitation is a necessary part of capitalism that is brought on by the economic imperatives that it unleashes, or whether these exploitative practises could be eliminated while preserving capitalism. One’s ultimate position on this issue will determine where one stands on the future of capitalism, but whatever position one takes one must recognize the affront to human decency that is represented by the forms of exploitation that were discussed above. Unfortunately, the practise of disguising expectations behind more enticing terms of employment has become so commonplace that we have forgotten that it is fundamentally exploitative.

Some thoughts on The Wolf of Wall Street

After having watched The Wolf of Wall Street I went online to do some reading about it. It seems that there has been a tendency to see this film as merely a critique of white collar crime and its treatment within the USA, or as a glorification of a hedonistic, money-obsessed way of life. While neither of these descriptions of this film is entirely inaccurate, it seems to me that this film has a meaning that goes beyond this opposition. This film helps us articulate the tension between the pursuit of sensuous pleasure and the development of what is best in one`s self, and suggests that the latter is not expendable and should not be replaced with purchasable sensuous pleasures.

The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of the rise of Jordan Belfort, and is based off his memoirs. Jordan Belfort becomes a stock broker in the late eighties and after the crash of 1987 finds a way to make vast amounts of money off penny stocks through very dishonest and manipulative sales tactics. His ascent continues as he begins to engage in more explicitly illegal activities to make more money such as money laundering and stock fraud. Ultimately, he makes his fortune largely by cheating people. At the end of the film Jordan is caught and he informs to the FBI about his associates and friends in order to get a reduced sentence. In the end he only serves three years at a ritzy country club prison, and after he is out he continues to make a fortune as a motivational speaker and sales trainer.

Jordan’s life seems to be a never-ending series of parties and money making schemes. He is a drug addict with a particular weakness for Alcohol, Quaaludes and Cocaine, and is presented as being nearly constantly high or drunk. Furthermore, while he has two beautiful wives over the course of the film, he has regular encounters with prostitutes to satiate his urges. His life seems thus to center around the pursuit of sensuous pleasure; this sensuous pleasure takes various forms for Jordan including the pleasure of making the sale, taking drugs or having casual sex. However, somewhat surprisingly, Jordan does not present his life as meaningless, empty or shallow instead he presents his drug and sex fueled escapades as being exhilarating, engaging and fun. In fact, late in the film Jordan gets sober and he comments to his friend that being sober is extremely boring and that he wants to kill himself. These words reveal Jordan’s genuine sense that the life that he ought to be living is one filled with as much drugs as possible. Consequently Jordan Belfort is a person who is totally committed to the pursuit of sensuous pleasure. He is uninhibited by any sense that the pursuit of this set of goods is ultimately unimportant, and there seems little in his life besides these sensuous pleasures.

Our first reaction to Jordan Belfort is likely one of contempt. He does not seem to be doing anything good or meaningful with his life, and he lacks any visible empathy for the victims of his crimes. And this is the sense in which it is true that this film serves as a critique of white collar crime, as we are presented with a wholly unsavory white collar criminal who seems to have little to no redeeming qualities and goes relatively unpunished for his misdeeds. But on the other hand while we feel contempt for Jordan, I think we also have a hidden desire to have a life like his. Many inhabitants of contemporary liberal capitalist society spend a good portion of their free time drinking and pursuing casual sex. While this kind of activity is distinct from Jordan Belfort’s debauchery it is similar in being also directed at sensuous pleasure, and thus we are not so distant from Jordan Belfort in that we too are often driven by the pursuit of sensuous pleasure. Consequently, while we have contempt for Jordan we also see his life as rich in a certain variety of pleasure that we also tend to desire. This conflicting set of judgments about Jordan and his life shows the way in which The Wolf of Wall Street can be said to illuminate the tension between the pursuit of sensuous pleasure and the development of what is best in one’s self, as we at once disrespect Jordan because he has failed to develop what is best in himself, but recognize that we too participate in the desires that he seems to be absolutely driven by. In this way this film helps us articulate a tension that exists within us between our desire for sensuous pleasure and our concern that we develop what is best in ourselves.

The pursuit of sensuous pleasure should be fairly self-evident by this point in the entry, but I do need to say a few things to clarify the notion of developing what is best in one`s self. The development of what is best in one`s self offers no guarantee of sensuous pleasure, and instead is a form of striving to see that one`s best qualities are fully realized. For example, if I have the capacity for courage I only realize this capacity to its fullest by facing situations that I fear and facing those fears with courage. Over time, this practise will begin to shape who I am and I will become more courageous. As a result the development of what is best in one`s self takes time, commitment and practise, and unlike sensuous pleasure cannot be purchased through money.

Jordan seems to have little concern for developing what is best in himself, rather his ultimate concern seems to be sensuous pleasure, whether it is the sensuous pleasure of drugs, sex or the sale. Whereas most members of the audience are likely in conflict between the pursuit of sensuous pleasure and the development of what is best in themselves, as they wander between moments of pursuing one goal to pursuing the next, Jordan is only driven by the pursuit of sensuous pleasure. Consequently, the character of Jordan shows us what a person is like when they are only driven by sensuous pleasure. This person who is solely driven by sensuous pleasure may not be evil per se, but they are contemptible, shallow and misguided, as they seem to be pursuing fleeting moment of pleasure that will not assure them any significant meaning in their life. In this way, the character of Jordan shows that eradicating the tension between the pursuit of sensuous pleasure and the development of what is best in one’s self by ignoring the latter leads us to a life that while rich in certain regards seems ultimately vacuous and superficial. In this way the film reveals that there is a still a need for the notion of the development of what is best in one’s self, and that the striving this requires is not something that we can forgo in favour of easily bought pleasurable experiences.

Prostitution, Puritanism, Commodification and Wage Labour

A little while ago the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws as unconstitutional. While this act by the Supreme Court never suggested that prostitution should be legal, it did argue that Canada’s current laws needed to be replaced as the current laws endangered the health and safety of sex trade workers. As a result of this the whole issue of prostitution’s status under the law has become a topic for public discussion.

The interesting element of these discussions of prostitution is the earnest piety with which both left leaning and right leaning politicians condemn prostitution as necessarily exploitative and immoral. I have a lot of sympathy with the argument that currently sex trade workers are exploited, victims of violence and subject to being connected with human trafficking, and I am not sure if the connection between these criminal activities and prostitution can easily be cut. But, the fact that currently sex trade workers tend to be subject to these dangers, does not necessarily show that prostitution is exploitative, but only that prostitution is exploitative under the particular conditions under which it exists within the contemporary Canadian context. And yet the partisans of both left and right seem to act as if the current state of prostitution in Canada means that sex trade work is necessarily exploitative and needs to be condemned by means of law. There are of course some contrasting voices that want to reform the sex trade industry such that it becomes a legitimate form of economic activity, but these are a very small minority. Thus, the Canadian public discussion of this issue is dominated by a very broad condemnation of prostitution.

I suspect that this condemnation of prostitution is due to the idea that there is something particularly degrading about prostitution such that even under the most perfect egalitarian conditions engaging in prostitution would be a sign that someone was mentally ill or depraved. This idea is rarely expressed clearly, but it seems to fit with the fact that we are the heirs to a tradition of thought and practise in which sexual purity was a central element of morality, and the fact that many people will say that they cannot see any reasons for engaging in prostitution other than poverty, desperation or mental illness. Consequently, it seems plausible to think that there is a strand of thought in Canada about prostitution which sees prostitution as necessarily degrading. Let us call this perspective `Pious Puritanism.` For the remainder of this entry I will argue that the ideas underlying pious puritanism are valid, but that they imply a broader critique of commodification and wage labour itself.

Pious Puritanism suggests that prostitution is deeply degrading under any condition. This raises the question of why prostitution is degrading, One reason to think that prostitution is degrading is that it represents the infiltration of norms of economic activity into a sphere in which norms of romantic affection ought to dominate, and economic norms should be barred entry. Just as it would be absurd and degrading for someone to treat their romantic partner as someone who they exchange goods and services with on the basis of a binding commercial contract, so too it is absurd and degrading to sell sex to another. Underlying this thought process is the idea that our sexual and romantic capacities should not be rendered into commodities that can be traded for money. Let us call this objection to prostitution the romantic criticism.

One other reason why someone might object to prostitution in principle is that prostitution treats a person merely as a sexual object to be bought and paid for. The problem with this form of objectification is that it renders the sex trade worker into an instrument of another`s pleasure, to be used. Even though this form of objectification does not actively coerce the sex trade worker it fails to positively appreciate that the sex trade worker is more than somebody to be paid and used. Let us call this objection the sexual objectification criticism.

While I find both of these criticisms compelling they point beyond the target of prostitution. In the case of the romantic critique it might seem as though prostitution is unique in that it commodifies aspects of us that should not be commodified. But it seems equally degrading to commodify one`s character traits such as loyalty, leadership or amicability, and yet when people apply for jobs they typically have a list of traits on their resume that they intend to sell to their prospective employer in order to get a job. In this way those who apply for jobs and work in the mainstream post-industrial economy are not merely selling their labour, they are selling themselves. Consequently, just as the sexual aspect of persons should not be commodified, so too it seems that the virtues that people have should not be commodified. It seems deeply demeaning to have to sell traits that are fundamental to who you are in order to get a job. As a result, the romantic critique seems to point to powerful reasons to be suspicious of prostitution, but it also point to the fact that there are other problematic forms of commodification within post-industrial societies like Canada.

The sexual objectification critique also properly sheds light on some of the problematic aspects of prostitution, but it doing so it also points to a broader critique of wage labour. If there is a problem with failing to positively appreciate that sex trade workers are more than sexual objects, than isn`t it also problematic for employers to fail to properly appreciate that their employees are more than a mere paid resource with particular capacities? This latter case seems to be a case of objectification as much as the former case does, and thus it is hard to see why objectifying someone as a sexual object is problematic, while objectifying them as a technical IT resource for instance would not be. We tend to be more comfortable with the latter form of objectification as we actively participate in it, simply by calling someone for IT support, but that does not render it any less of a form of objectification unless we treat the IT worker as more than just a resource that we have to pay. Thus, it seems that the sexual objectification critique points to the fact that wage labour itself is problematic. Thus, it seems that the romantic critique and sexual objectification critique of prostitution actually point towards a broader critique of practises of commodification and wage labour.

If the two critiques elaborated above point towards a broader critique of commodification and wage labour this means that anyone who finds prostitution problematic for the reasons associated with these critiques should also find certain elements of the economic systems of post-industrial society deeply problematic. I am certainly someone who finds both prostitution and many elements of the economic systems of post-industrial societies problematic, but it seems that within our culture there is a general tendency to have disdain for prostitution, while ignoring the fact that many of the reasons behind people’s condemnation of prostitution point to a broader critique of commodification and wage labour. It is important for us to recognize that this perspective is deeply in tension, if not contradictory, and thus problematic.

The Meritocracy of Desertolia

The simple, hardworking people of Desertolia had constructed their political institutions in the most ingenious way; all elements of society were structured around the single divine purpose of rewarding each for his or her merit. Those who worked hard got the finest homes and were honored publicly, while those who did not lived in squalor and were rightly condemned through public ceremony. Unlike those societies based on a confusing mix of goals Desertolia was truly unified around its fundamental purpose.

With a judicious eye to fairness the people of Desertolia ensured that children were not unduly punished for the sins of their parents or unduly rewarded for the virtues of the parents. As a result the residents of Desertolia had no need for the warm sentimentality of blood ties and had abolished the family in favour of a form of raising children that truly fulfilled the need to reward all for their merit. If parents were to raise their biological children this would reward the children of the excellent and punish the children of the mediocre as the children of the mediocre would be habituated to act in mediocre ways, while the excellent would be habituated to act in excellent ways. A child born to a mediocre set of parents should not be punished for having been born to mediocre parents, as the child’s future should not be sullied by the status of its biological originators.

Instead of having romantic couples form and raise their biological children the Desertolians had yearly breeding ceremonies in which breeding matches would were chosen by the ruling council in accordance with merit. Those who had properly done their duty and lived excellent lives were rewarded with likewise fine, attractive mates, while those who were mediocre or corrupt were made to breed with others who were mediocre or corrupt. The Desertolians understand that it would be a travesty to the sacredness of merit to have the excellent breed with the mediocre or corrupt. After the children were born to their biological mother, the child would be taken to the Kinderecclesia, a set of public grounds that served to raise children. In the Kinderecclesia each child was cared for according to its merit from the time of its birth to the age of 17. The commitment to rewarding children according to merit within the Kinderecclesia was both admirable and thoroughgoing. Infants who cried too much and misbehaved were justly disciplined, while those who were quiet and pleasant were given fine rewards. Likewise, older teenagers who could recite the Seven Sacred Principles of Merit of Desertolia were allowed to engage in conjugal relationships with one another, while those who could not were barred from engaging in romantic relations of any kind. In Desertolia, the right to pursue erotic love was not something that was accessible to anybody, but only to those who had met an appropriate standard of merit.

The Desertolians rejected both socialism and capitalism as neither properly rewarded each according to his merit. Capitalism displayed injustice because it allowed inheritance and unduly rewarded many who had not worked hard. Socialism was impious because it provided according to need rather than according to what people merited. Instead of capitalist or socialist forms of economic organization, in Desertolia, all goods were distributed by the Economic Commission of Desertolia according to the merit of the recipients. Those who had worked hard and lead morally upright lives were given much, while libertines and slovenly scoundrels were given little. In the past small scale trade had occurred between people in Desertolia, but these practises were rightly recognized as heretical to the principles of merit. If people were allowed to buy goods from one another than the mediocre or corrupt could end up with something that they did not merit, and this would violate everything that the Desertolians held dear. Surely, nothing could be worse.

Music, Commodification, Creativity and Beauty

During this week a colleague of mine and I were discussing a band that she quite enjoys. I commented that while I think this band are good at what they do, I find their music derivative and therefore have never really given them much attention. Her response to this was that she sees nothing wrong with a band being derivative if they produce enjoyable, good music. My response to her comment expressed the idea that part of the point of the creation of art is to create something unique and distinctive, as opposed to something that is merely a re-creation of something that already exists. Ultimately, there was no resolution to the discussion, but this conversation got me thinking about the nature of music and its relation to modes of production and consumption within post-industrial society. I will argue that while music may not need to be creative or original to be good, that the presence of original music is necessary in post-industrial society as original music forces us to recognize the beauty of art, so that we can fully appreciate it, rather than merely seeing music as a commodity and consuming it.

Within contemporary post-industrial society music is not only an art form; it is also a mass produced commodity. The commodity nature of music means that we tend to consume music as opposed to appreciating its beauty; we listen to music not as a response to beauty of the music, but rather because we know that we will gain enjoyment from listening to the music. In this sense we look for the musical product that is most likely to give us a reasonable rate of return in terms of enjoyment relative to our investment in the product. As a result of this, beauty becomes dissociated from music as we do not see music as something beautiful that we need to fully grasp, and appreciate, but rather see it as something that merely delivers enjoyment, just like any other commodity.

Derivative music is typically consumed unthinkingly. If I have a heard a particular form of music before, and I stumble upon another band that performs this style well, my experience of their music will not draw attention to the beauty of the music, as the music will simply appear to me as something ordinary that provides me with enjoyment, rather than a beautiful object that needs to be appreciated. In this sense the consumption of derivative music sits fairly comfortably with the dissociation of music and beauty.

On the other hand, original music serves to reconnect music and beauty such that the listener is drawn to appreciate the beauty of the piece of music, rather than merely seeing the music as an instrument of enjoyment. This occurs as original music provides us with a unique experience that pulls us out of our everyday pre-reflective mode of operation. When I hear a form of music that I have never heard before, whether I like it or not, I am drawn to understand that form of music precisely because it is so alien. The alien nature of the music calls on me to grasp it. Furthermore, in trying to understand that form of music I am drawn to recognize its beauty. Consequently, original music as opposed to derivative music allows us to once again realize that music is more than a commodity; rather, it is an attempt to create something beautiful.

Seeing the relationship between music and beauty is important because this relationship is integral to the practise of the composition of music. The composer of music is not a clever entrepreneur trying to create an attractive product, but an artist trying to create some new manifestation of beauty in the world. Therefore, If one sees music merely as something that provides enjoyment one has failed to understand the practise of the composition of music. This failure seems particularly egregious as the creation of music seems to be a significant practise in nearly all human societies and thus to lack understanding of this practise, is to lack understanding of the human condition in general.

So it seems that both my colleague and I made valid points. Derivative music can be beautiful, and consequently good, but creativity is necessary in music, in a post-industrial society, as the experience of creative music ensures that people will be able to see, and fully appreciate, that music is not merely a commodity, but the attempt to create something beautiful.

Fight Club, Material Goods and Freedom

In the film Fight Club, Tyler Durden, a character who is a representation of the rejection of feminized mass consumer corporate culture, says that “the things you own end up owning you.” At first glance this line seems perplexing as it seems to suggest that freedom and owning a vast set of material possessions are in conflict. While, I don’t think that this comment is true in all circumstances it seems to be true in a particular sense within the context of societies in which nearly all of the residents are expected to have jobs and work for a living. Let us call these jobholding societies. Within this entry I will show in what sense Tyler Durden`s statement is true and furthermore, I wlll argue that the lack of freedom of the accumulator of material goods within jobholding societies is characterized by the problematic marginalization of leisure and a life which cycles between work and amusement.

Within a jobholding society if one has a set of material possessions one must then put labour into the upkeep of those possessions in order so that they retain their value. Furthermore, the more possessions that one has the more time one has to put into their upkeep as a whole. Of course one could merely buy the things and then refrain from putting any time into their upkeep, but this seems irrational as the point of buying something is so that one can capitalize on the value that it provides. For example, if one has a sparsely furnished single bedroom condominium one will have to spend far less time on the upkeep of this set of possessions than a large home that is ostentatiously furnished. Consequently, it seems that the more things one owns the more one will be required to spend one`s time maintaining those goods. Thus, there seems to be an insight to Tyler Durden`s comment as the person who owns many things within a jobholding society must now become devoted to maintaining those things. This is something that is dictated by the very logic of the purchase of commodities itself.

It should be noted that the possessions that an aristocrat owns would not have a negative impact on his or her freedom, because they have servants, or possibly slaves to deal with the maintenance of these objects, and that is why I say that Durden`s line is not true under all circumstances. There are other circumstances under which Durden`s statement would also cease to be true, but for the sake of brevity I will not consider those situations.

Furthermore, within jobholding societies there are ways out of this dilemma for the owner of a large set of material goods and that is to hire others to maintain one`s goods for you, but this option is only effectively open to those with exorbitant wealth. Even if those within the middle classes can hire someone to clean their home once every two weeks, they are still left with a large degree of upkeep on their home and other possessions. So for those who are not extremely wealthy the accumulation of possessions is a mixed blessing. We are at once are drawn to the accumulation of material goods in order to make our lives more comfortable, but these material possessions end up taking our time away as we struggle to maintain the value of the possessions that we have purchased.

Similarly, the danger that the ownership of a large extent of material possessions is not some minor threat to our freedom, as it encourages us to live within a problematic cycle of work and amusement or entertainment. Due to the fact that we spend a large part of our lives working at our jobs, and working to maintain our material possessions, when we are not working we tend to slide into activities that we enjoy merely as a visceral source of entertainment that allows us to momentarily unwind. What this cycle leaves out is leisure. Leisure is not rest, but rather time that one has where one is free to do what one finds valuable. When we engage in an activity under conditions of leisure we do so because we find that activity valuable, not because we have to engage in the activity to pursue some other end. Furthermore, leisure is distinct from entertainment or amusement, as we amuse ourselves so that we are able to reenergize so that we can return to work, whereas leisure has no aim beyond itself. Leisure is significant because if flourishing is to mean anything more than pursuing instrumental goods (work), or merely being entertained (amusement), then leisure will have to be central to flourishing. And surely there is more to the value of human life than work or amusement. This is evident as subsuming the value of friendship, romantic love, the life of the mind, musical composition and athletic achievement under the category of something that is merely instrumentally valuable, or something that is merely entertaining denigrates these goods. These are all goods which can only be fully realized under the conditions of leisure, because if they are pursued as instrumental goods, or as mere sources of entertainment their value is inadequately recognized and appreciated. Consequently, the ownership of a large set of material possessions with a jobholding society damages the freedom and life of the possessor by encouraging them to fall into life which cycles between work and amusement, rather than a life in which a space is given to leisure and all of the goods associated with it.

Therefore, Tyler Durden`s statement reveals a deep problem with jobholding societies in that while these societies may seem to allow individuals to be free to accumulate the goods that make themselves most comfortable, the cost of this practise of accumulation is the marginalization of leisure and all of the good associated with it from the lives of those who accumulate large sets of material goods. Thus, while it may seem paradoxical that the jobholder with a large set of material possessions is less free in one sense than the jobholder with fewer possessions, there seems to be a very real sense in which the preceding is true.

Another important element that we can draw from the preceding is that the danger to human freedom that capitalist holds occurs both on the side of production and consumption.. We are well aware of how we are unfree within a capitalist society in that we have to either work or starve, and we are exploited by the extraction of surplus value, but sometimes we are not aware of enough of the ways in which our very activities of consumption and accumulation make our lives less free. Here it should be pointed out that jobholding society is a distinct concept from capitalist society. All capitalist societies are jobholding societies, but socialist societies are also jobholding societies.