The next time you mute the television during a commercial, examine the silent language of an advertisement. It’s more obvious with the sound off. The human drama is centered on a non-human object, an object of attraction, even of obsession or worship. The satiated stare of the actors, whether speaking directly to you or in some concocted interaction, rests on the commodity. Whatever social milieu may be depicted, whatever situation presents itself as self-consciously typical of “us,” the viewer, is completed and fulfilled only by the commodity. Although life is portrayed as if it were something else, something existing outside of the commercial, the product being sold is manifestly the meaning of life.
Here is the real American religion, indeed the religion of “Western civilization.” The religion of prayer and sermons and churches is only a sideshow, a feature in the cultural landscape. There is no adoration in mass culture, the culture of day-to-day life in the “developed” countries, that can compare to the adoration of the car, the appliance, the light beer, the prescription drug. In fact it is not the specific commodity in itself that is significant, but our relationship with any product, the relationship of the consumer with any desired object, that constitutes our way of life.
To understand this fully it is necessary to clear away all illusions about the “means of existence.” Some commodities are necessary to us in terms of food, shelter, health, or future security. Many of them are unnecessary. But the cult of the commodity creates the same mental outlook in either case. You can be poor as dirt and still be hypnotized by a sense of dependency on products as such, a mental and emotional dependency that molds one’s entire attitude towards life.
When people talk disparagingly about “material things” as if an attachment to the physical world was a problem, it only obscures the issue. The object of worship in this religion is not really material at all. It represents a way of living that is purposely alienated from interpersonal relations. Our attention in the deepest sense, the locus of our daily awareness, is trained to turn away from ourselves as a human community and towards the product, which becomes a replacement for meaning. When the shiny car drives up in the commercial, the people turn towards it as if it were a god or a holy grail. It has been invested with a kind of magic, a meaning that has no meaning other than the turning of attention itself. The market, through the sheer mechanical logic of its operation, has colonized the human mind, turning society into a group of atomized individuals bonding with their commodities.
The effect on the world is disastrous, but it is difficult to realize what the problem is as long as one is under the spell of this new religion. If one has no experience with culture based on relationships between people, if all one knows is consumer culture, there is only a nagging sense of unease, a premonition of emptiness. It has become difficult to experience the natural world without the intrusion of commodities, but glimpses can be had if you are lucky. In the midst of the nonjudgmental and non-manipulative environment of the wilderness, gratitude can suddenly arise. There are people who can look at a forest or a canyon and only see the potential for some kind of use, something to grasp, something to consume. Humanity pays a steep price for ignoring its dependence on nature.
In architecture, too, we can tell when something has been built with an attention based on a relationship with nature, and on the sense of human community. Such places inspire an inner sense of freedom and contentment, and a connection with other people. The architecture of the consumer religion is only designed to showcase the commodity. People are always visitors in these environments. There is nowhere to rest, nowhere to interact meaningfully with anybody. We are impelled, rather, to interact with products. Such places foster a sense of inner constraint and dissatisfaction. Nothing can satisfy the restless seeking. No object is ever enough.
The U.S. is covered with strip malls now, from coast to coast. The strip mall is the perfect church for the new religion. They are alike in their ugliness. We park our cars in the parking lots and enter the strip malls looking for a promised fulfillment. Whatever conversations we may have with each other are only incidental to the drama of the capitalist economy. It is the epic drama of perfect boredom.
To break away from the new religion is to experience a wrenching of the psyche. There is no easy way for a free spirit to make his escape. An attitude of sheer negation is in itself a mere reaction, a symptom of malaise. Those of us who see a different reality are called also to make it visible. We find ourselves blending the unrelenting vigor of a satirist with the tenderness of a grieving lover. Shaking free of the common stupor is not something achieved once and for all, but must be practiced every day, with varying success, while at the same time we strive to meet the eyes of others without dishonesty or shame. At this time we are still spraying graffiti on the walls. By the time we tear down the walls, will we have learned how to grow gardens instead?