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Friday, September 03, 2004

Be a penny pincher

(c) "Class of 55" by William Klein

Eyestorm has this nice project where they'll link an article to a couple of (famous) images. Check out Americana, Making faces, Desire and Nature in the Multimedia section. Here's something Zizek wrote about consuming (the conclusion is more interesting than the Lacan part imo):

Miser as the Subject of Desire
by Slavoj Zizek

According to Lacan, thrift offers the key to what human desire is. What, then, is the status of thrift as a vice? In the Aristotelian frame of mind, it would be simple to locate thrift at the opposite extreme from prodigality, and then, of course, to construct some middle term - say, prudence, the art of moderate expenditure, avoiding both extremes - as the true virtue. However, the paradox of the miser is that he makes an excess out of moderation itself. That is to say, the standard qualification of desire focuses on its transgressive character: ethics (in the premodern sense of the 'art of living') is ultimately the ethics of moderation, of resisting the urge to go beyond certain limits, a resistance against desire which is by definition transgressive - sexual passion which consumes me totally, gluttony, destructive passion which doesn't stop even at murder... In contrast to this transgressive notion of desire, the Miser invests with desire (and thus with an excessive quality) moderation itself: do not spend, economize, retain instead of letting go - all the proverbial 'anal' qualities. And it is only THIS desire, the very anti-desire, that is desire par excellence.

So, if we want to discern the mystery of desire, we should not focus on the lover or murderer in the thrall of their passion, ready to put at stake anything and everything for it, but on the miser's attitude towards his chest, the secret place where he keeps and gathers his possessions. The mystery, of course, is that, in the figure of the miser, excess coincides with lack, power with impotence, avaricious hoarding with the elevation of the object into the prohibited/untouchable thing one can only observe, never fully enjoy. Is not the ultimate miser's aria Bartolo's A un dottor della mia sorte from Act I of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia? Its obsessive madness perfectly renders the fact that he is totally indifferent towards the prospect of having sex with the young Rosina - he wants to marry her in order to possess and guard her in the same way a miser possesses his strongbox. In more philosophical terms, the paradox of the miser is that he unites the two incompatible ethical traditions: the Aristotelian ethics of moderation and the Kantian ethics of an unconditional demand that derails the 'pleasure principle' - the miser elevates the maxim of moderation itself into a Kantian unconditional demand. The very sticking to the rule of moderation, the very avoiding of the excess, thus generates an excess - a surplus-enjoyment - of its own.

Capitalism, however, introduces a twist into this logic: the capitalist is no longer the lone miser who sticks to his hidden treasure, taking a secret peek at it when he is alone, behind the safely locked doors, but the subject who accepts the basic paradox that the only way to preserve and multiply one's treasure is to spend it - Juliet's formula of love from the balcony scene ('the more I give, the more I have') undergoes here a perverse twist - is this formula not also the very formula of the capitalist venture? The more the capitalist invests (and borrows money in order to invest), the more he has, so that, at the end of the line, we get a purely virtual capitalist a la Donald Trump whose cash 'net worth' is practically zero or even negative, yet who passes for 'wealthy' on account of the prospect of future profits.

This basic paradox enables us to generate even phenomena like the most elementary marketing strategy, which is to appeal to the consumer's thrift: is the ultimate message of the publicity clips not 'Buy this, spend more, and you will economize, you will get a surplus for free!'? Recall the proverbial male-chauvinist image of the wife who comes home from a shopping spree and informs her husband: 'I've just spared us $200! Although I wanted to buy only one jacket, I bought three, and thus got a $200 discount!' The embodiment of this surplus is the toothpaste tube whose last third is differently colored, with the large letters: 'YOU GET 30% FREE!' - I am always tempted to say in such a situation: 'OK, then give me only this free 30% of the paste!' In capitalism, the definition of the 'proper price' is a DISCOUNT price. The worn-out designation 'society of consumption' thus holds only if one conceives of consumption as the mode of appearance of its very opposite, thrift.

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