Shopping and subversion

As I sit at the cafe with my coffee looking out over the morning rush of Collins Street, I watch a young man pasting his tasteful ‘winter sale’ sign on the Ralph Lauren store window opposite.  Next door is Hermanns with its not so discreet ‘50% off’ in bright red letters.  Further up there’s Gucci and just to my left Chanel for whom sale signs are perhaps too common.  Up and down this historic street are the boutique stores that mark the upper end of the consumer market here in Melbourne.  For those who like to shop and do so in style, this is the place to be.

As a pastor of a church in this neighbourhood, I often struggle with what it is we have to say as followers of Jesus.  On Sunday I’ll begin exploring the New Testament letter to the Colossians, ‘a subversive text for challenging times.’  But really, what on earth does living subversively look like … here? I wish I knew.

A couple of years ago I read a little book that stirred my own thinking about these sorts of things.  The New York based author Judith Levine claims no religious perspective on the issues of consumerism, but approaches the challenges in an interesting way.  In Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, she documents a year of frugality, one in which she and her partner shopped for nothing but the basic necessities of food and personal hygiene. In diary form, Levine tracks her experiences and responses, interweaving them with reflections on broader issues. The result is a highly readable, personal and sensible exploration of consumerist culture and its impacts … one of the best I’ve read. There is much in Levine’s writing that is helpful, but it’s her reflections on the relationship between consumption and desire that I find most compelling.

Levine grieves the apparent death of utopian visions of society. The only utopian movements left, she argues, are ‘ecstatic embraces of discipline’–on one side the religious Right with its pledges of sexual chastity, and on the Left the movements of voluntary simplicity. Quoting cultural critic Ellen Willis, anti-consumerism has become ‘the Puritanism of the Left.’

According to Levine, on both Left and Right desire is now cast as the enemy: ‘Part of me is disgusted by America’s sense of entitlement to vast quantities of everything. At the same time, I am loath to ally myself with any movement, right or left, that starts by telling people not to desire.’  For Levine, the problem is not that we consume and certainly not that we desire too much, but that we do not desire enough.  Our visions of utopia and the longings that undergird them have been hijacked and made trivial.

‘I don’t want faith. As far as I am concerned, there is far too much blind faith out there; the worst, from Islamic jihadists to Christian anti-abortion assassins, are full of passionate conviction. But I do want something that religions offer in abundance: the permission to desire wildly, to want the biggest stuff—communion, transcendence, joy and freedom …’

For Levine, the great tragedy of our current consumerist society is that our desires are reduced to shallow and empty things.  Speaking of her own culture: ‘America’s aspirations are not rising. They’re a lead bob plummeting to zero. … compared to what we might imagine, the desires of the American consumer are paltry.’

Perhaps Levine is onto something. Perhaps living well, living and shopping subversively, in a consumerist culture is less to do with overcoming desire and more to do with allowing desire its reign. As followers of Jesus, we are called to an audacious hope, an envisioning of life in its fulness. Perhaps our subversive rally call might be: Desire boldly!


Another provocative read has been Elizabeth Farrelly’s Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness.  I’ve rambled on about it before, but it’s worth noting as a book that’s left its mark.

Though critiques on consumerism are voluminous, this one is more thoughtfully engaging than most.   As a critic of architecture for the Sydney Morning Herald, Farrelly’s faculties of cultural dissection are well honed. Her prose is intelligent, biting and often amusing, and while I cannot imagine wanting to share coffee with her, I am grateful for the more distant challenge of her words.

As the title indicates, the book is concerned with blubber, the superfluous stuff of life, and the role it plays in our lives.  According to Farrelly, there’s good blubber and bad.  On one hand, blubber is the life-affirming luxury of beauty:

‘It’s the whale oil for the lamps on long winter nights … the egg’s white, the fruit’s flesh, the yeasty bounce of a baby’s thigh designed to sustain life through cold and famine. Blubber is anything spare or surplus. The aedicule, gazebo or porch that adds to a building nothing but graciousness; the purposeless energy of birdsong that is neither mating call or warning but pure, simple pleasure; the spare time in the day, or in the tribal calendar, that makes space for creative play. Blubber, in this sense, is the crack where the light gets in.’

At the more negative end, blubber can be an ‘embalming shroud’ of excess that blocks the light and numbs us to the true nature of the beauty we long for. Bad blubber is …

‘the track-suited, mind-numbed couch potato, the quadruple-garaged McMansion, the idealized fantasy life of the virtual-reality addict … It is the bear-pit of reality TV, the pseudo-feminist me-ring that you buy yourself, the neurotic shopaholics aspiring to ever bigger and more perfect apartments just to house all the stuff. Blubber is the world of vast, glittering malls and dreary look-at-me suburbs interspersed with limitless acreage of concrete, ashphalt and billboards. … All of this is blubberland.’

According to Farrelly, discerning good blubber from bad is the challenge of life.  And that’s where the book’s subtitle ‘the dangers of happiness’ comes into play.  In an age when personal happiness has become the holy grail, we’re convinced that immersing ourselves in ever more excess is the most direct route to possession. Yet ‘our habituation to excess robs us of the very sense of meaning that we so desperately crave.’ Consequently we’ve become blubber-rich and meaning-poor.

Affirming desire as one of the most fundamental expressions of our humanity, Farrelly draws on two theories of wanting to explain our misdirection. The first is the theory of miswanting: ‘the tendency to want all the wrong things, things that are wrong not just morally or environmentally but even in their capacity to deliver the satisfaction they promise.’ Based on a dodgy understanding of what will make us happy, miswanting occurs because ‘we are hardwired to mispredict both the intensity and the duration’ of our satisfaction. In short, ‘we think things will make us happier than they do, for longer than they do.’

The second is that of British philosopher Raymond Tallis who postulates four hungers in human experience: the first three being survival, pleasure and recognition. The fourth, driven by our awareness of the gap between our fantasies and our reality, is ‘the craving for connection, for seeing clearly, for touching it and being there.’ At its core, it’s a desire for beauty.

According to Farrelly, beauty is one of our chief motivating desires: ‘we crave it in ourselves, in others, in our lives and surroundings.’ And it is the reinstatement of beauty rather than happiness at the centre of our vision of the good life that Farrelly calls for in the remainder of the book:

‘… beauty cannot only make us feel better but tempt us into better selves and better lives. Beauty gives salience, the difference between the good idea and the craving; the vividness that generates desire. Beauty is our reward, the carrot with which we seduce ourselves into goodness. Magically, beauty not only promises happiness, it makes us want to be good. Beauty incentivises morality, and morality incentivises wisdom. We banish it at our peril.’

For Farrelly, the words truth and beauty are interchangeable. For in seeking beauty, in its most genuine form, we seek truth. It is here that she has some interesting things to say to the church. More on that next time.