A friend is visiting, and he is a very smart person.
He forgets, however, I am an idiot, neglects the fact I can’t concentrate on anything for more than 30 seconds or so, and attempts to have an intelligent conversation with me.
He tries to do this while I am watching TV. To avert an embarrassing social faux pas, I hit the mute button on the remote and turn to a position where I can pretend to look at him, all the while keeping an eye on the screen in case something bright and shiny appears there. Bright and shiny things fascinate me, especially if they move.
My friend’s topic: The possibility that our culture is now defined nearly exclusively by consumerism, by consumption and a slavish relationship to corporate America — no longer by reading, art, conversation, history (as if it ever were).
He asserts, in fact, our culture relies more and more on an ignorance of history and the embrace of kitsch, on ignorance of the values available in literature and philosophy, on public education geared to a productive role in a corporate machine, on the total immersion of the individual in an ocean of transient goods and exposure to a relentless barrage of ideas — political and commercial (as if they are different) — so shallow they are no more than slogans.
As he mentions this, I notice a woman on the screen is blasting the living daylights out of her thighs and rear end with a medieval looking device — all elastic bands and springs. It must work: her thighs are magnificent, Olympian. Who wouldn’t want thighs like that? She is in absolute control of her appearance and, therefore, of her universe. To look superior is to be superior.
My friend is still talking.
… that, with each passing day, what it means to be an American — and increasingly, a citizen of the globe in this ever flatter world — is defined by what one purchases, what one owns, where one lives, what one does to produce the income necessary to own more things, by the trite political labels they attach to themselves. That, in fact, what we are as persons is increasingly defined by our cooperative response to corporate ad media-driven political demands.
In short, he asks, are we trapped in a net cast by increasingly dominant commercial entities and a parallel economic and political elite, lured in by an appeal to a logo-burdened sense of self — a sense of self built with a deliberately short horizon line, resting on a foundation of indulgence and immediate gratification?
What kind of liberal freak is this guy?, I ask myself. But then, something moves on the periphery, and I fail to say anything. A guy on the tube is selling a product that removes mold from grout. Like magic! You’ve got a moldy bathroom, for example. Well, first, what does that say about you? Nothing good, you can be sure. Your neighbors, after all, do not have moldy bathrooms. One application of the magic formula and you can invite the Queen of England to have dinner, in your bathroom, and you will feel not an iota of shame. Buy it. Now.
My friend is still talking.
… could it be our major media are operated so as to shift consciousness to topics and events structured to divert us from consideration of certain realities — the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor, the intentional attempt to destroy public education with governmental mandates, the steady undermining of states rights and local governmental control, damage to the environment, the shrinking middle class, the commercialization and homogenization of partisan politics, the increasing lack of loyalty of giant business interests to any and all nations, the impending serfdom of the overwhelming majority of the planet’s population, misguided violence and political evil? Has our news become entertainment of a perverse sort, designed like sitcoms, as mindless filler between commercials?
Out of the corner of my eye, I watch a huge SUV blast through a major league berm of snow. I decide I want a silver, huge SUV, with special hip-hop wheels and rims. My new vehicle will feature a sound system capable of breaking glass at a distance of 100 yards and I will have a television system installed so members of my posse can watch music videos as we blast our way through banks of snow, effortlessly, at 50 miles per hour and 8 miles per gallon. We will impress many, many people as we wheel carefree across their property. We will be important because my vehicle is huge, and loud. A lot bigger and louder than yours. I might even cover it with decals.
My attention wanders back to my friend’s monologue.
… look at national politics, for example. Democrat or Republican? Isn’t it kind of foolish to think there is a great difference between the two? The media’s been in a frenzy to create the right versus left, liberal versus conservative distinction, to prime people’s gullibility, massage them as they swallow the questionable distinction because it is made personal, shaped to fit their ego needs. But, upon examination, isn’t each faction as beholding as the other to corporate money, interests and demands? Haven’t people been conned into adopting false political identities, their energies diverted to an empty, loud discourse characterized by exaggeration, anger and falsehood? Haven’t people been conned into becoming political caricatures and turned against each other so they don’t get together and turn on those who really deserve the ire?
Suddenly, there it is, on the screen: something truly revolutionary. I halt the conversation.
“You want meaning? You want substance?” I ask my friend. “Don’t hand me your kitsch-as culture crapola. Regardez, mon ami. I mean, check it out; it’s incredible.”
There it is, all bright and shiny, held in the hands of healthy, fit-looking people, who’ve gathered on a snazzy patio, each illuminated by the strongest of suns, happy in a way only fully satiated consumers can be. It’s the Plate Caddy. Available through a onetime television offer. All major credit cards accepted.
Never again will your party guests have to fumble with a risky combination of plate, eating utensils and glass or cup.
Think about it. You can throw a luau, a cocktail party or a holiday bash at the new grotesquely large third home you built on former ranch or farm land, and never have to worry about a guest ruining a new outfit from Lord and Taylor with spilt food and drink. Nothing is going to slop on to those Dolce & Gabannas.
Not when you’ve got the Plate Caddy.
Could anyone criticize consumer culture once they’ve seen this beauty? It’s a space-age piece of molded plastic that looks like it’s straight from the bridge of The Enterprise. Look at it: Imagine Kirk and Spock and the rest of the interstellar gang putting their chow on these sleek wonders. The plastic plate is locked in place in the center of the caddy; a cup holder makes the drinks secure as the Enterprise goes to Warp 7. There’s a utensil slot on the side for knife, fork and spoon, just in case the crew needs to draw their phasers and rub out a Klingon or two.
Who says kitsch is lacking in depth and not related to fundamental needs? Who wants Chaucer or Rembrandt, who cares about Toynbee or Spengler, when you’ve got a creation like the Plate Caddy?
Plus, each caddy has a special, color-coded “snack pick” with it, so you’ll always know which caddy goes with which guest when it comes time to circulate with another platter of store-bought meatballs.
I ponder the purchase of a set of plate caddies.
Let’s see, I say to my friend: I’m rabidly antisocial; I inhabit virtual space, full of jingles, low interest rates and special, onetime offers. I have little time left for real people. So, should the occasion arise when I actually allow people into my house and serve them food, how many caddies will I need?
I can’t foresee inviting more than six people total for dinner, and that’s stretching it. After all, I have two small couch/recliners and a couple of chairs in the “entertainment center,” all placed in front of the television set. The idea of eight or more guests is out of the question; someone would not be able to see the screen, and someone would be likely to interrupt my favorite programs with things like “meaningful conversation.”
Unfortunately, the caddies are sold in sets of four, so I will have to purchase two sets, keeping two caddies aside in case I lose or break one of the essential six. (Break a space age plastic Plate Caddy? Not gonna happen.)
When my caddies arrive (I’ll have them sent next-day express) I’ll surprise my socially deprived wife and throw a caddy party. We’ll set the event to coincide with the prime hours on the Shopping Network — it’s cubic zirconia month, you know. Talk about sparkly.
What to have? What is the perfect food for a plate caddy and an evening of rocking good commercial fun?
Obviously something that, with an ordinary plate-cup-utensil combo, would set the stage for disaster. Something hot and messy, hard to manage without the help of modern industry and design. Something in harmony with contemporary tastes, with the consumer culture, with globalization. Something kitschy.
This is a fine one, both tastewise and in terms of symbolic meaning.
Think about it: A huge packing plant located somewhere in Nebraska uses uninsured illegal workers to grind random chunks of animals (and the occasional uninsured illegal worker) together to produce the meat I’ll use as my base. How about some tomatoes, genetically engineered and grown to a point where they are full-sized, green and hard, then turned red through the scientific application of a gas while they are in transit in an abysmally hot truck? Oh, yeah.
And I’ll need some onion and garlic and green pepper, again genetically engineered to create the right appearance (Flavor? What’s flavor? Who needs it?), sprayed repeatedly and kept bug free. Liquid smoke, produced in a test tube? OK, bring it on. Some spices finish off the list, the pungent goodies harvested somewhere in Southeast Asia by 10-year-olds working for 25 cents per day. I’ll plop the saucy melange on top of hamburger buns saturated with preservatives and other additives, baked thousands at a time in an automated facility outside Spokane. For a beverage: simulated orange drink, chock full of artificial flavor and colorings. Ahhh. If it was good enough for astronauts, it’s darned well good enough for me.
“That ought to suit the new cultural elite you’re so worried about, eh?” I say to my weak-kneed intellectual friend.
In my zeal, I hadn’t noticed he was gone.
I hit a button on the remote. The sound is back on. Life is good.
A talking head on the news says gasoline prices are down somewhat and Lindsey Lohan has barfed at a Hollywood club. The president is looking to pick a fight in Syria and L’il Bow Wow has advice for kids thinking about dropping out of school.
Did you know there’s a new plastic wrap that seals with the touch of a finger?
Five more Americans died in Afghanistan. Two hundred Afghans.
No child is left behind. And no child (who is not in a private school) is truly educated.
“You deserve a break today …”
With nothing down, and next-day shipping.