should I get these earrings & other questions about consumption

  1. Are these phallic earrings great or terrible?

They’re actually very expensive so I am probably not going to get them, but I did have a brief moment this morning halfway through filling out my brother’s College Board CSS profile, when I was like… hm, maybe. That made me realize that it’s time for me to acknowledge that we’re in the stretch of the pandemic where at least some of us are feeling mildly untethered from reality.

I know I’m privileged to be comfortable/healthy/covid-free (it could be so very much worse), but the passage of time feels distinctly odd right now, and my brain also is in a weird place. It makes me sad that I turn to objects to comfort myself, instead of people.

  1. Should I write about the influencer economy?

The past three days I’ve been thinking about reworking the last 1/5 of the book I’m writing. Right now around Chapter 27 the narrator basically settles in a ski town during the pandemic and begins writing a book (does this remind you of anyone?) but I think that actually I’m going to rewrite that section so that she starts a TikTok account where she explains what SPACs are and why IPOs pop and how psychedelics flatten the functional hierarchy of the brain while wearing brightly colored mesh tops like this one:

I think there are some interesting things about virality and “the creator economy” and influencers that I want to explore. So I’ll write 10 pages, and trash it if it’s terrible. We’ll see.

  1. What does it mean to be a consumer?

Adam Smith described consumption as the opposite of production. From Eula Biss’ excellent book Having and Being Had, which inspired this post:

What is destroyed when we think of ourselves as consumers, Graeber suggests, is the possibility that we might be doing something productive outside of work.

  1. Are we sick of buying things?

Is our desire for minimalism a desire to escape to constant cycle of buying and using and earning? From How Nothing Became Everything We Wanted:

This obsession with absence, the intentional erasure of self and surroundings, is the apotheosis of what I’ve come to think of as a culture of negation: a body of cultural output, from material goods to entertainment franchises to lifestyle fads, that evinces a desire to reject the overstimulation that defines contemporary existence.

There’s always more to buy, more to want. People in tech like Pelotons and fitness trackers and Eight Sleep mattress. Girls on Instagram wear Paloma Wool and Hosbjerg and Moncler puffers. Older millennials are addicted to browsing Redfin. In Manhattan a 700 square ft apartment can be rented for $3000 a month. The things you can exchange money for (especially large amounts of money) are often beautifully designed, finely made, signify the class you belong to, signify knowledge and taste. I have friends who reject the idea of spending money on objects, who might instead, say, put their money into companies. There is, of course, a clear distinction between putting money into physical things, and putting money into intangible things that generate more money, but what this distinction means is less clear to me.

  1. Should you stop eating (added) sugar?

In America, our problems with consumption stem beyond an addiction to objects. The overconsumption of refined sugars has made us, as a population, enormously overweight. From The Case Against Sugar:

“Sugar was “an ideal substance,” says Mintz. “It served to make a busy life seem less so; in the pause that refreshes, it eased, or seemed to ease the changes back and forth from work to rest; it provided swifter sensations of fullness or satisfaction than complex carbohydrates did; it combined easily with many other foods, in some of which it was also used (tea and biscuit, coffee and bun, chocolate and jam-smeared bread)….No wonder the rich and powerful liked it so much, and no wonder the poor learned to love it.”

I love sugar: I typically start the morning by eating 1/3 a bar of chocolate, and then continue to eat more of it throughout the day. I also enjoy coffee with lots of creamer, Haribo peaches, Tillamook ice cream, White Russians, milk with powdered sugar and bourbon…

I’m trying to give it up because I would to stay healthy as long as I can and I’m genetically destined to one day get Type 2 diabetes. Tragically, I’ve replaced chocolate with coffee with milk, slices of turkey, chicken salad wraps, and 16 cans of La Croix per day. Also weird snacks like “paleo puffs,” which are surprisingly better than they sound. I know, it’s depressing. Please come hold my hand.

  1. Is it unfair to judge people based on taste?

Taste is a type of cultural capital. I understand that money creates taste (though you don’t necessarily need money to develop taste, and lots of people with money definitely don’t have taste), and therefore it’s probably wrong to judge people on theirs.

But aren’t we all compelled by the impulse towards beauty, and don’t we all subconsciously believe that our assessments should be universal? To tell you the truth, I think relativists are lying to themselves.

Some time ago, I fell in love with a guy who had (what in my opinion was) terrible taste. Actually, I’ve fallen for multiple guys like that, so I’m definitely not compromising anyone’s anonymity here. By “terrible taste,” I mean that they made choices that were completely bewildering to me, choices that I thought were uninspired and/or ugly. And I could never make up my mind on whether the fact that I still liked them meant that taste was much less important to me than I thought it was, —that I was just making shallow judgment calls of no real importance—or that it was evidence that relationship would never work out.

I don’t think I care that much about what someone wears or how they decorate their place, but I do care about their taste in people, taste in where to live, what to work on, moral choices, which are in the end maybe just another type of aesthetic choice.

  1. Should we try to understand the economy?

When I was 16, I wanted to go to UChicago and become an economist. Then I decided what I really wanted to do was to go to Penn and work at a hedge fund. These days I’m quite glad I didn’t dedicate myself professionally to understanding whether the fluctuations of the market are rational, but I still think I’m going to try to read a book a week on the economy and share some comments on them with you guys and see how it goes. If I find them really boring, I may stop. Full warning.

  1. Are we delusional about the world we live in, or are we just unable to think of alternatives?

From Having and Being Had: “Maybe from inside capitalism, Will says, every other system looks improbable and nostalgic, and every other way of life is hard to believe.”

I saw a Twitter thread this morning about a book I love, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More. I’ll let you read it, but basically the guy argues that Biden’s speech was an example of the same kind of collective delusion that people in the Soviet Union suffered from right before it collapsed, when there were clear signs that way of life wasn’t working out, but everyone genuinely deluded themselves into believing things were just fine.

It’s unclear to me whether that’s happening in the US today. I feel more that people are aware that something is terribly wrong, that the way we live is not sustainable for a large percentage of the population, but they’re unsure what to do.

  1. Does art always turn into property?

I guess so. People want to own things. People, as far as I can tell, want to own people. I’m all for the idea of non-possessiveness, but every single person I’ve ever met—when they’re really and truly in love—wants to keep the person they love within arm’s reach. They want to know that the person is dependable, that their affections are safe. There are people who’ll claim they don’t feel this way, of course, that their partner can do whatever they want, but I find that usually occurs when 1) they’re not that invested in the relationship or 2) on a subconscious level they know their partner is so devoted to them they have nothing to fear, or 3) they have to share their partner to keep them.

Having and Being Had mentions Peggy Guggenheim, who used her inheritance to buy Picassos, Magrittes, and Dalis before they were valuable, who discovered Jackson Pollock when he was still a janitor and sent him money so he could quit his job.

Artists make beautiful things and put them out in the world and the best case scenario for them is that someone else will one day pay an enormous of money for what they’ve made. Even for books, you need to either sell a lot of copies or have someone purchase the movie rights.

To want to make something that’s more than a commodity, to want to be more than a consumer, and to also reconcile that desire with the world we live in—I’m still trying to make sense of it.