The Problem of Production in a Culture of   Consumption

Two Decembers ago, I made a resolution: in 2013, I would produce more and consume less.  Although the importance of production was drilled home by my growing engagement with Marx, I focused less on my consumption of goods than on my consumption of entertainment.  I didn’t want to be a passive recipient, immanent in the world and reacting to it, but instead a driving force that built ideas and crafted art.

I vowed that I would watch less, read less, write more, and create. I took up the ukulele.  I got a job writing for a blog. I started playing basketball and stopped watching football. I lessened my consumption of television to Girls and Game of Thrones and movies to…well, nothing. I didn’t go to the movies at all in 2013, at least until the new Hobbit, which I felt obligated to see (but which I did walk out of in boredom).

The thing is, I didn’t renew that resolution this year. I’m still not watching football, but I’m reading more (and not just because of grad school). I’m trying to become more culturally aware, to keep up with movies and at least the vaguest outlines of the (overwhelmingly large and varied) world of TV.  I stopped playing the ukulele, although that might be due to inertia.

Why? Removing myself from the broader culture of consumption was making me lonely. We live in a society where we spend most of our time consuming things produced by other people; when we produce we produce only in teams teams to be consumed by anonymous others. Producing things for yourself, especially things that require practice, is a lonely way to spend your time. It’s hard to talk to people when you don’t consume culture, and there are only so many ways you can talk about the things you are doing, no matter how diverse, without seeming self-centered and unable to relate to other people. I missed whole conversations because I had no frame of reference

The flipside is that we live in a society where there is more to consume than could ever be possible. I have a list of TV shows to watch.  The top two are The Wire and Breaking Bad, about 120 hours of total viewing time. Two hours a day watching those shows—8.3% of each day—would finish them in two months.   That’s a lot of time, and my list of shows is long.

So given that I can consume and keep consuming TV for every waking moment of my life and still never watch everything, what should I do?  What about when I add in reddit, or movies, or new bands, or even the thousand things I need to read for school and the million things I just want to read for life?  How do I strike a balance between being a culturally isolated Philistine who creates and produces and a mindless couch zombie who has no life independent of the churning corporate schlock machine? 

This seems to be the fundamental problem of our times, and mirrors our problems with material consumption, especially food.  We are faced with overabundance of immediately pleasurable, once-rare opportunities to consume food, food that is rarely satiating and designed to be addictive.  You can lose yourself in the momentary pleasures of a Pop-Tart, repeated ad nauseum. But a life totally given in to the manufactured crap that provides momentary gustatory pleasure is a life that is, in the end, devoid of internal meaning. The opportunity costs of constant consumption have led the consumer to no longer envision anything except consuming more—any ability to break free is lost.

Just as with producing ones’ own entertainment, however, totally swearing off of food produced by others is a social sacrifice, and it isolates one away from the contemporary urban life that I, for one, relish.  You can’t be a self-sufficient farmer in Santa Monica.  You can’t be a self-sufficient farmer and be in grad school.  You can’t be a self-sufficient farmer and do anything else except farm.

So once again the question comes down to balance.  How do we live a life that lies between the two poles of lonely production and oversaturated consumption?  What should my updated New Year’s resolution have been for 2014?

Ancient philosophical schools emphasized life lived in accordance with a principle of moderation—justice between leniency and spite, courage between cowardliness and reckless abandon, productive engagement between caring too much and not caring at all.  Maybe the solution is as easy as applying that to our consumption practices—to find moderation, in this as in all things.  But moderation doesn’t seem to be enough.  I also think we need wisdom, wisdom to choose how we’re going to spend those precious hours we spend consuming, and wisdom to choose what to create when we have the time, just as precious, to impact the external world.  

Moderation is about quantity. Wisdom is about quality. And quality is why I still need to watch The Wire.

© Henry Gruber 2013