On Being Consumed

The Way You Are... FiredComplete the following sentence as it best describes you.  You are a product of…

  • (a) your upbringing
  • (b) your environment
  • (c) your imagination
  • (d) what others think of you
  • (e) I don’t want to be a product.

My answer: all of the above and especially the last.

Fred Rogers and Donald Trump.  Guys-in-ties with nothing else in common.  One tells you that you need only exist to be loved.  The other sets all sorts of conditions.  You have to move to The Big City.  Be an extrovert.  Work your network.  Embrace a single-minded and self-absorbed worldview.  And if you fail — goodbye, you’re fired.

But I want to be liked just the way I am.  I don’t want to have to perform, as one expects of a product, because I am a person.  I don’t deserve to be fired.  Like Mitt Romney, I want the right to fire others, but not the other way around.  Isn’t my being good enough?

I live in dissonance, denying the tension between my expectations of how others perform (especially when I pay for it, but even when I don’t) and what I expect of myself — or, more accurately, what I think others should expect of me.  (I generally expect more of myself than what I think others should expect of me, but I’m allowed to do that.)

I am not interested in virtuosity.  Except when it comes to products and services I buy, athletes and teams I follow, and those in government who serve and protect me.  To name a few.  But I myself am no virtuoso.  I don’t strive to be the best at anything I do, because such efforts have a billion-to-one odds of success.  I refuse to make the kind of personal investment that greatness requires.  Well then, be the best you can be, people exhort, when one’s talents are less than world-class.  But what exactly is “the best I can be” and for whom would I supposedly be that?  For some invisible triumvirate of reality-show judges?  What is so wrong with the way I am?

I rebel not so much against the notion of excellence but rather the idea that I am a product to be consumed and that I must compete in the marketplace.  That I must have a brand rather than an identity.  That not only my worthiness but my very worth is for the market to decide.

Those of us who eat meat appreciate the fact that it has been graded by the government, to indicate its fitness for consumption.  If meat were not consumed, those grades would not be needed.  Cows could be cows again, if you can imagine what that would be like (they can’t).  That is the essence of it.  I could simply be me, if I weren’t being graded and consumed.  And I do try to imagine what that would be like.

• • •

I like to produce things that last, and to express thoughts that have some lasting effect.  But what is expected from us is to sate the appetite of here-and-now.  Such is the tyranny of our culture of consumption and its unrelenting pressure upon us to feed its gaping maw.  Publish or perish.  Sink or swim.  Eat or be eaten.  Do or die.

At this point I should stop and reassure my readers that, with respect to performance, I do believe in pay based upon services rendered and proportional to the quality thereof delivered.  I am not saying mediocrity should be rewarded.  Mediocrity has its place: it reminds us how good good is.  But when one’s standing in the marketplace is all anyone cares about — as measured by the money we make, the house we live in, the connections we have, and all those subtle and not-so-subtle ways we are held to account by our culture of consumption — success is just a pain in the ass.

A few days ago, in a cross-table chat at our neighborhood picnic, I was asked whether I was trying to get my artwork shown in a local gallery.  My answer was no, but I stumbled as I tried to explain why.  It is probably because I was embarassed to admit that I don’t want to enter the competition.  It’s out of my league.  I would likely be rejected, because I don’t have the confidence to sell or speak for my work, regardless of its quality.

Sure, having a gallery “validate” my art by electing to display it for six weeks, that would be nice.  It would be a bubbly and wonderful ego trip.  But I don’t want it badly enough to pretend to be (or strive to be) something I am not.  Instead, I opt to “make my own rules so that I’ll win the game,” as my quietly poetic friend Eric Maatta wrote some decades ago.  I will figure out a way to produce and share my art my way,  some day, without running that gauntlet of selling myself.

• • •

As I was doing research for this topic, I came across a site that echoed and distilled many of my own thoughts: a manifesto of amateurism by Anton Krueger.  I am taking the liberty to reprint portions of that essay here, because links tend to be fragile these days:

The amateurist is interested in singularity, not in mass reproduction…

The amateurist manoeuvres with complete impunity towards any notions of success which might be measurable in terms of quantity…

In whichever plane the amateurist plays, he always operates with total individual freedom…

Oh to be an amateurist!  To produce things that last vs. things designed to please the mass appetite: that indeed would feel like freedom.  If I only produced those kind of things.

• • •

When I was sixteen and about to consider colleges and careers, I argued with my parents about what I would do for a living.  I had been enamored with the syndicate columnist Sydney J. Harris and the idea of writing a newspaper column of such erudition and wit as he so often expressed.  In my naivety, I presumed that the way to become a columnist was to first become a journalist, and so I told my parents that I wanted to major in journalism.

My mom and dad, who offered to pay for my college education, would have none of that. Journalists don’t make money.  We are not going to pay for you to become a “two-penny journalist,” they said.  If you want us to pay for college, you will be a chemical engineer —  chemical engineers are in demand, they said.  (This was 1969, four years before the OPEC oil crisis forced the closing of a large number of U.S. petrochemical plants.)

I acquiesced.  I was seventeen and could have done something different, but I didn’t.  Instead I did chemical engineering for thirty years.  Could have stepped away any time, but I didn’t.

• • •

I have wittingly and otherwise emulated Sydney J. Harris on this blog, especially with respect to his “Thoughts at Large” columns.  My current hero-of-letters, however, is Christopher Hitchens.  For me, he is beyond emulation.  In fact, I am so awed by his talent that it can intimidate me from writing, as neither my experiences nor my command of the language compare to his.  Krueger drives this point home in his manifesto:

The crime of specialisation is that it inhibits and prevents people from acting, because if only some can be masters, then the rest must become audience…

Professionalism thrives on expanding a passive audience…so professionalism can inhibit personal creative expression by threatening the would-be amateurist’s confidence and enthusiasm…

As an amateurist, I do have to work to maintain enthusiasm and go forward.  As I remind myself, Hitchens could not write this blog (even if he were alive), only I can.  After all I am unique (if not special).  I am the 100 Billionth Person.  No cow can say that.

• • •

Our culture of consumption wastes the creative energies of talented people.  It distorts our values and changes the kinds of things we would otherwise produce.  We need to recognize and support those who respect quality but choose not to be consumed.  And we need to preserve the distinction between worthiness (suitability for a particular task) and worth.  Mister Rogers may have been a mediocre puppeteer but he knew what he was worth and what we are worth.  He told us we were special.  I would so like to believe him.

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5 Responses to On Being Consumed

  1. Sue Collins says:

    I love you just the way you are through all the years. What could be more special?

  2. Lester Malizia says:

    Do not worry about perfection, it cannot be acheived – Salvadore Dali

  3. Craig says:

    As if I hadn’t said enough on this topic… I had written this fragment of a post that I thought might be pertinent to the subject at hand. Consider it a postscript:

    I know only a handful of people visit my blog and read what I post. It can easily be seen as a conceit, what I’m doing, writing commentary for your supposed benefit. Why do it when so few read it? Especially with so many more important things demanding and deserving of your attention.

    I can’t be concerned with popularity this time around. I want out of the selling business. Selling me, what I think, what I do, for money, security, acceptance. Another dead-end on Satisfaction Street.*

    Yes, it is different this time. I want to feel some of the fun and spirit of creativity I once did, way back when it didn’t matter, when I did something because I hadn’t done it before, when I did it because I amazed even myself a little. You can’t pay for this or be paid for it. It is a feeling that comes from doing what feels right and letting what happens happen. Sounds like the 1970s, I know, but let me know if you think Facebook does this for you.

    I am in the fortunate position to be able to front the cost of a website, to have the time to write my thoughts, to have some friends read them. Let alone not fear for my life and not worry when I am going to eat again. Just to keep things in perspective.

    Nonetheless, it strikes me that much of life (if you’re not careful) is about being consumed. Get good grades in school, so good colleges will accept you, so good employers will hire you. Pad your resumé so your next employer will bump your salary. Build your networks. Market yourself. Create your brand. Develop your unique style. Put yourself out there. You are a product, sell it, sell it, sell it!

    Art gets viewed, products get used. You got to be used to be useful.


    * Satisfaction Street. One block away, and just around the corner, from The Twilight Zone.

  4. Bruce says:

    I have read this twice now and I’m still not quite sure what this is. A cry for… something. Not help. Not attention. Not quite to be left alone. For acceptance on one’s own terms? Yes, in part. I see what you’re saying. You care about quality and even desire elite performance of some people. You care about the quality of your own work, and you want to share it, or not share it, on your own terms, and not be judged worthy or unworthy if you do or don’t, because that’s not the point, you’re not a product. OK. You do what you do for your own reasons and on your own terms. Aside from the person who wonders why you don’t try to exhibit your art (a stereotypical but not unreasonable question of anyone who seems to take art seriously – most people assume that activities like making art have goals, such as sales or recognition) , who is judging or misjudging you on your creative endeavors?

    In a way this is a 1% sort of thing. Not the financial 1% exactly (though you do clarify that you are lucky not to have to fear for your life or next meal). More the creative and intelligent 1% who strive to create something and wonder about what things mean, including their own actions. Many people don’t do this and don’t have these worries, though they may resent being judged in the domain where you seem to agree that there is a valid need for a “value proposition” (e.g., a machinist who will be fired as soon as a robot or foreign worker is available who can do her job for less than what she costs her employer). For the employer, the machinist’s services are a product they are buying and they are free to shop around, as depressing as this may be.

    Art is always mostly for the person creating it, whether it’s a doodle or a blog post or a photo or a recording of a song. Sharing any art with others always invites judgment that might seem to be a consumer-like thing (is this real art, or amateurish art, and if he is not inviting judgment, why is he showing it to me, or sharing it on the internet?). I still aspire to make records like those of professionals who inspire me, such as the Beatles and Paul Simon. I’m playing catch-up and gradually getting better, but I can tell when I listen to any Beatles or Paul Simon record that I have a long way to go, and will probably not live long enough to join their minor league teams. I don’t have much of an audience and probably never will. But I have met some really cool people through sharing my music that I would not have met any other way, such as my producer Roger and my friend Pete in Australia (who I met through flight simulators before learning he was a professional musician). And if one or two people do like something I record and post, it feels good. Those who don’t generally don’t say anything. And in any case, it’s what I do. This year anyway.

    Lord I was born a rambling man! But I say being creative is worth the side effects, whatever they may be (not applicable in Soviet Russia and other places where the wrong sort of creativity can be life threatening). It gives me a good feeling to create a piece of music that never existed before, and I will work long and hard on it, and listen to it dozens of times in the process. And as I have said before, I have CMU, Hammerschlag Hall, and you to thank for planting the idea that you can be a regular person (if engineering students can be so considered) and still create things like magazines and songs in your spare time. So thanks again for that.

    And now I’ve read THIS thing twice and I don’t know what it is either. But my backup is done and it’s time for bed!

  5. Craig says:

    Bruce, first, thanks as always for reading the blog (twice!) and your thoughtful replies. I also read your comment twice before replying. I really don’t want to belabor this topic, but I will add just a few more words, as it seems I have made a lot of brushstrokes without really painting a picture, if you will excuse the metaphor.

    If this post was a cry for something, I guess it would be a cry for freedom. There are various things in life that don’t add to our experience. Shaving, for one. Sometimes I think about how many hours of my life I have wasted shaving. Raking leaves is another. In business parlance, these activities would be considered “overhead”. Non-productive things we have to do that are really beside the point of why we are here. In this post I tried to invite the reader to put competitive activities related to one’s winning in the marketplace into that same category of “overhead”.

    One of the ideas that I left out of the post (yes, I left something out!) was how, in the world depicted in “Star Trek: Next Generation”, there was no need for money, and so people were able to do what they enjoyed doing. (Even then, people had to compete for positions of command, etc., but those assignments still seemed largely based on merit, not salesmanship.) I imagine what our world would be like, if we did not have to spend time and emotional energy on selling ourselves. This is so engrained in our culture that I think it hard for us to step away from it and look at it as “overhead”. It may be a Utopian goal to eliminate the overhead, but if we’re aware of it, perhaps we can reduce it.

    Some of my blog posts are like brain surgery — I try to extract one idea from my head, but several other nearby ideas are attached, and fragments of them come along too. Sometimes I’m too lazy to disentangle them here. But sometimes that’s the point. Again, thank you, Bruce, for caring.

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