The New Commodity
It’s the new revolution; it’s so hip to be pregnant. Welcome to the birth of America’s new nuclear family. Thanks are due, in part, to the celebrities who have popularized the idea, and to the spectacle itself (media), for making it so prominent. This is not to say that having babies is a new and novel conception – humans have been doing it for a very, very long time. With the evolution of psychology, people have been working to become “more human.” In recent years, society has embarked upon creating the “self-conscious child” (71 De Zengotita) – making what children say and do “really” matter. It allows them to make a place for themselves in the world at an early age, as we praise them with such flattery as, “Good job! Good job!” (71 De Zengotita). Children become aware of the annihilation of meaning early in life. They don’t have to succeed, or even do well; they only have to try (75 De Zengotita) – so why not give all the options a whirl? But circumstances have changed – we have come upon a highly virtualized age. What happens when this self-aware child, with a world full of options, also becomes a commodity?
Vanity Fair recently published a 22 page photo spread featuring Suri, the baby of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Consistently throughout the photos, Suri is the center of attention. In the few photographs when the family is also involved, it recalls Renaissance paintings of Mary and baby Jesus; Suri is centered in the photograph, and all lines of perspective look to her (91 Bryson, lecture). The new nuclear family is centered on the baby – the most esteemed commodity there is. This may seem perfectly normal, except that in this virtualized world, media presents us all our options, and everything has become a commodity – consumers have been conditioned, “to see commodity purchases as the indispensable means to everything positive in life” (Wolff 17).
Suri, through such exposure, has become a celebrity simply by existing at all, and her birth has become, “a bona fide pop-culture event” (292 Vanity Fair). She becomes a spectacle, symbolic of the new commodity. Everyone will want their own little Suri. The “fad” of celebrity babies will, no doubt, lead to a short-lived baby boom – and naturally so, as we live in a commoditized world. It has been made a very popular option in a world where an, “individual’s own gestures are no longer his own, but rather those of someone else who represents them to him” (Debord 23). Our soon-to-be wants and desires are on the front page of Vanity Fair – as a feature article, nonetheless. Not to mention all the other celebrity babies with cover stories. Who, in an era of life in America’s broken homes, wouldn’t want the perfect little family – especially when having a family can get oneself such dramatic attention? The “flattered self” wants to be a part of this, “performing their lives [… and becoming] recognized performers” (116 De Zengotita). Anyone can take baby pictures; post them on the internet and feed the spectacle – look at that, you’re famous!
De Zengotita says that a society that praises a, “fully mediated child-centeredness [blurs] the distinction between child and adult. […And] more and more of our cultural productions aim for this fusion of sensibilities” (58). With the multitude of options available, the “flattered self” ought to know better than to “self-identify” with the photo-shopped “family life,” let alone identify with the child. But by identifying with the child it somehow makes life more meaningful, as they are a reminder of our own mortality, signifying, “the ultimate limit to our options” (44 De Zengotita). They signify the profundity of our existence, and whisper naggingly that in order to survive, “one must either submit or die” (32 Debord) – buy into the consumerism of society or get out. Again and again, the “faithful mirror” of the spectacle (16 Debord) reflects society’s heterogeneity – despite the abundance of options, we become more and more like each other and less like individuals. The commoditization of babies makes us accept what all participants in society have become – gears in the capitalist machine; the only prescribed jobs are to keep earning an hourly wage, and to keep consuming. By all means, keep consuming.
The spectacle and its consumers play right into the needs of a capitalistic society, directly represented by the “spectacle’s internal dynamics” (Debord 19). Whatever an exploitative capitalistic society needs to keep it happily mediated is what will end up appearing in media. In a time of political unrest and instability in the home, it would only make sense that family values would again make a play for prime time viewing and participation. This is a cycle unto itself; those with economic power will continue to turn people into labor – into a commodity themselves that can be bought and sold. And with a new baby comes a shift in household finances. More material needs come about, which requires more working hours – often for less pay in half of a dual-income family, as part time working mothers are often paid less (187 Massey). This keeps the capitalistic system running at full speed, continually deepening the divide between the haves and the have-nots.
The celebrities are in power (so said because in society today, the spectacle has more support from the masses than politics does in and of itself); their “owning” a new baby creates the drive for society to mimic the spectacle presented. But for the majority of people, this creates an economic rift, as babies are not a one-time investment. Children are a lifetime investment, especially as the world becomes more virtualized – there are simply more options available in how to raise a child. This means more expenses, and more consumption as new parents try their hand at parenting. However, when babies are represented simply as images in media, they become little more than an object to possess. It does not represent the responsibility or the costs involved with children, it only presents the happiness they are portrayed to create.
The photojournalistic spread in Vanity Fair captures a representation of family living, a moment in which, as Holmes described it, she, “felt like… Mom” (292 Vanity Fair). Most mothers in the United States and elsewhere do not have maids or cooks to help keep the household together – they do not “feel” like mothers, they are mothers. This is not to devalue Holmes’ motherhood, but to emphasize how mediated a presentation of parenting can be; is it possible that the “family life” presented by Cruise and Holmes is skewed in comparison to that of the general public? Is “real” family living in America much messier than that of celebrities? More than likely. But they paint a very pretty picture that society would love to put faith in.
The new capitalism is an acceptance of modernized commodities (such as, regretfully, babies); “The real consumer thus becomes a consumer of illusion. The commodity is this illusion, which is in fact real, and the spectacle its most general form” (Debord 32). Thus, the illusion is the happiness brought by having children, yet the children themselves, once brought into existence, are very real. They don’t just go away when the page is turned, nor can you trade them in for the newest, hottest commodity when having a baby gets tedious. Society’s participation in this spectacle furthers the progress of a capitalistic society by reclassifying our value system, making babies and the happy families they come with (read the contents on the back of the box) the “new commodity.” Also, and perhaps more importantly, it drives capitalism by simultaneously giving birth to the consumers of the future. In the future, in an even more virtualized world, perhaps this commoditization of humans won’t seem so strange. Already it has begun losing its poignancy – it has been developing, rather, dissipating over the generations. Our parents were part of it, we were part of it, and our children will be as well; the commoditization of society may seem only natural to them, as they are provided more and more options. Capitalism doesn’t drive itself – someone has to buy into it. Children will grow up in, “the society of the spectacle [and contemplate themselves] in a world of [their] own making” (Debord 34). Everything, themselves included, will be an option in their world.
Thus, in a fashion, the spectacle reproduces itself in the next generation of consumers. Because in this virtualized existence, every individual acts as both consumer and commodity, and as, “commodities are now all that there is to see” (29 Debord), all of society is, inherently, a part of the spectacle – it informs society’s decisions, just as society informs the spectacle of what options presented will be most feasible. The most consumable. The “meaning of life” has been diverted from the traditional spiritual sense to commoditized aspirations of: owning, having, and holding. Whatever your neighbor has, you must also have – you have to be able to keep up; such is the ideology behind the values instilled in American society. “[Accepting] such consumption [as] an adequate compensation” (Wolff 12) for making the rich richer and the poor poorer, is necessary to submit to an exploitative capitalistic system. Consumerism is the driving force – and feeds itself with the new directionality of reclassifying the living as commodities.
The new nuclear family includes: 1 mother, 1 father, 1 child, 1 baby, 1 dog. Forget alternative lifestyles – the heterosexist single family unit is selling like hotcakes. Our hopes and dreams are measured in the accumulation of capital, of stuff. “Stuff” can’t be liquidated into a measure of spirituality when death comes (and it does come to us all). I suppose it is best to have someone to leave it to. You, too, can secure a future in this capitalistic society; be sure to pick up your own Baby Suri on the way home from work today.
How human can society be when we are driven by the spectacle – a thing completely inhuman, essentially untouchable by humans. Society has outsourced the creation of identities to the growing number of poor in third world countries. This division of society by capital distances humans from who we “really” are – just humans. As society buys and sells the rights to identities, it effectively prostitutes itself, valuing individuals at the worth of paper currency. The commoditization of our children leads to malady – the depersonalization of an entire worldview. Humans are not catalog bought. We cannot order children through IKEA with a nightstand (yet). But it may take several generations to figure out where and when society not only succumbed to, but in essence, became the spectacle.
Bryson, Norman. Excerpt “The Gaze in the Expanded Field” in Vision and Visuality, p. 88-94. Ed. Hal Foster. Seattle: Bay Press, 1988.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle, p. 11-46. New York: Zone Books, 1994 (orig. published 1967).
De Zengotita, Thomas. Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It, p. 13-173. New York: Bloomsbury, 2005.
Larkin, Jane. “Someone Wanted to See Me?” Vanity Fair Magazine. Oct. 2006: 276-296.
Massey, Doreen. Space, Place and Gender, p. 185-90. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.
Wolff, Richard D. “title.” http://www.umass.edu/economics/publications/2004-07.pdf . Accessed (10/06).
© 2006 Michelle Ferris
English 498: Liu