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Category Archives: commerce

“Far from being a child of nature, the West was actually given birth by modern technology and bears all the scars of that fierce gestation, like a baby born of an addict.”

– Donald Worster


“My youthful materialism thrived in a country where materialism – unless of the Marxist variety – was unanimously condemned as the ugly outgrowth of Western consumer societies. We knew this was just an ideological cover-up for the never-ending shortages. My brand of materialism didn’t belong in a consumer society either, because it was a kind of disproportionate attachment to things that was caused by scarcity, something unheard-of in a market economy. I couldn’t want more, new, or better. Such wanting was at best a futile and abstract exercise, so I learned to practice self-limitation.”

– Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough, “Objects of Affection”

“Our world is mostly mapped, its common species mostly named. For a while, video games filled the gap, presenting new, uncharted virtual lands to satisfy players’ wanderlust…. Why do we explore? There’s the thrill of novelty, sure, but in some baser part of the brain, below the realm of language, the game demonstrates that we are also drawn to the promise of finding somewhere better.”

– Simon Parkin, “All Alone in No Man’s Sky

“Harry Nilsson used to say the definition of an artist was someone who rode way ahead of the herd and was sort of the lookout. You don’t have to be that, to be an artist. You can be right smack-dab in the middle of the herd. If you are, you’ll be the richest.”

– Albert Brooks

“We should keep in mind that vulgar has many dictionary definitions and that only a couple of these have to do w/ lewdness or bad taste. At root, vulgar just means popular on a mass scale. It is the semantic opposite of pretentious or snobby. It is humility with a combo-over. It is Nielsen ratings and Barnum’s axiom and the real bottom line. It is big, big business.”

– David Foster Wallace, “Big Red Son”

“I suspect that part of the self-conscious-community thing here has to do with space. Rural Midwesterners live surrounded by unpopulated land, marooned in a space whose emptiness tarts to become both physical and spiritual. You’re alienated from the very space around you, in a way, because out here the land’s less an environment than a commodity. The land’s basically a factory. You live in the same facotry you work in. You spend an enormous amount of time with the land, but you’re still alienated from it in some way. It’s probably hard to feel any sort of Romantic spiritual connection to nature when you have to make your living from it.”

– David Foster Wallace, “Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from it All”

“The surface of Stand-Out ads still presents a relatively unalloyed Buy This Thing, but the deep message of television w/r/t these ads looks to be that Joe Briefcase’s ontological status as just one in a reactive watching mass is at some basic level shaky, contingent, and that true actualization of self would ultimately consist in Joe’s becoming one of the images that are the objects of this great herd-like watching. That is, television’s real pitch in these commercials is that it’s better to be inside the TV than to be outside, watching.”

David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram”

“[It is ironic] That products presented as helping you express individuality can afford to be advertised on television only because they sell to enormous numbers of people.”

– David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram”

“It is all dead money now. The coffers of wealth accumulated by the capture and sale of slaves had turned into rubbish. Cowrie shells were demonetized and eventually outlawed altogether by colonial governments, which had divided and conquered Africa in the guise of emancipating it. The mortal anguish of the slaves had become apparent belatedly to European nations and this nascent abolitionist zeal provided the rationale for the conquest of Africa. In the nineteenth century, the same nations responsible for the shipment of millions of captives declared themselves the antagonists of slavery. Soon after colonial governments abolished Africa’s internal slave trade, the currency of the slave trade,at least what Africans had accumulated, was destroyed too. No similar effort to erase the past and start anew was enacted in the West. The pounds and francs and marks that replaced cowrie shells were blood money too.”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“Cowrie shells replaced the indigenous curries of Africa… The literal piles and mountains of money must have made it seem as if this plenitude was without end.

However, the money Africans acquired was inconvertible. The shells passed from white hands to black, but back again, ensuring they remained ‘Negro currency.’

War and predation enabled Africa to produce slaves and purchase luxury goods, and permitted Europe to accumulate the capital necessary for economic development. But everyone knew the shells didn’t bear life but instead devoured it. The teeth lining the aperture were clearly for eating. In every place ravaged by the slave trade, stories circulated about the human cost of money: cowrie shells feasted on the bodies of the captives. Money multiplied if fed human food.

Popular lore held that teh best places to harvest cowries were along the coast where slaves had been murdered or drowned. Nets were cast into the sea to dredge for treasure. The corpse of a slave would emerge from the water encased by thousands of shells. The fisherman who retrieved the body of the human-mollusk plucked off the money and returned home a wealthy man. Rich men fished for cowries using the amputated limbs of slaves as bait… Hovering at the edge of the water, guiltless and avaricious, the big men lingered until the money began to sprout and welcomed it as a gift from God.”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“Cowrie shells became the currency of West Africa in the era of the Atlantic slave trade. While North Africans had introduced them as early as the eleventh century, they became ubiquitous in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Europeans began exchanging them for slaves.

The shells were imported from the Maldives. Women and men waded waist-deep into the sea and detached the shells from stones, wood, and palm leaves, which had been placed in the shallows for easy collection. One person could gather as many as twelve thousand shells in a day. The shells were buried in sand for a few weeks until the mollusks died and the smell of putrefaction vanished. They were then disinterred, washed, dried and strong together for sale.

The English and the Dutch acquired the shells very cheaply and considered them worthless. European traders derisively called the shells ‘Negro money.’ To their eyes, Africans’ esteem of these worthless pieces was yet another instance of fetishism. In the eighteenth century alone, more than twenty-five million pounds of cowries were imported into West Africa. Of the six million plus captives transported to the Americas in the eighteenth century, anywhere from a third to a quarter of them had been exchange for shells. twelve to sixteen pounds of cowries were enough to purchase a strapping young man. That was one pound of cowries for every thirteen pounds of human flesh.”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“The Royal Africa Company and the Company of Merchants didn’t imagine their human cargo as a pile of corpses, nor did they consider these dank rooms a grave. As they saw it, the dungeon was a womb in which the slave was born. The harvest of raw material and the manufacture of goods defined the prison’s function. The British didn’t call it a womb; they called it a factory, which has its first usage in the trading forts of West Africa. (The very word ‘factory’ documents the indissoluble link between England’s industrial revolution and the birth of human commodities.)

“In the company’s view, the dungeon was a way station for human refuse and a cocoon for laborers. The miracle of the slave trade was that it resuscitated useless lives and transformed waste into capital. Africa benefited from the commerce, avowed the merchants, because ‘her wants were satisfied at a very trifling expense’ and paid for with ‘the refuse and offscourings of her population.’ What Aime Cesaire later described as ‘walking compost hideously promising tender cane and silky cotton.’ ”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“It is said that our age is materialistic. But it’s not true! We only accumulate objects in order to communicate with other minds. We do it to make them love us, to seduce them. Nothing could be less materialistic, or more sentimental… Consumerism is not materialism.”

– Yann Dall’Aglio

“I asked for help. I was not much in the habit of doing so… It’s partly because we imagine that gifts put us in the giver’s debt, and debt is supposed to be a bad thing… But there are gifts people yearn to give and debts that tie us together.

“Sometimes to accept is also a gift. The anthropologist David Graeber points out that the explanation that we invented money because barter was too clumsy is false… Before money, people didn’t barter but gave and received as goods ebbed and flowed. They thereby incurred the indebtedness that bound them together, and reciprocated slowly, incompletely, in the ongoing transaction that is a community. Money was invented as a way to sever the ties by completing the transactions that never needed to be completed in the older systems, but existed like a circulatory system in a body. Money makes us separate bodies, and maybe it teaches us that we should be separate.

“I once read an account about a wealthy Turkana man in Kenya who offered to slaughter a goat in his guest’s honor and then used one of his impoverished neighbor’s few poor animals instead of a goat from his own large herd. The guest was perlexed, but the man who had offered his neighbor’s goat eventually explained that he was thereby weaving him into the web of obligation and future gifts, strengthening his ties and his position, earning for him goodwill that was better than goats. The goods would continue to flow in both directions, but the immaterial goods mattered more and in losing his goat the poor man became a little richer. The host became someone he could go to for help and eventually did, receiving far more than a single goat.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“There was a certain luxury to charity that she could not identify with and did not have. To take ‘charity’ for granted, to revel in this charity towards people whom one did not know – perhaps it came from having had yesterday and having today and expecting to have tomorrow.”

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

“Many saw their separation from others as a welcome freedom from responsibility. Liberty meant leaving people, whatever their needs, behind. We became a nation of boomers, everlastingly after a new start out in the open, by ourselves.

This morally indefensible equation of space, understood as distance from others, and freedom, understood as license to pursue one’s own interests without regard for those of others (no one else being in view), has ended of course in the reduction of everyone’s freedom. While the apparently infinite number of opportunities to start again stretched away westward, the mythology of capitalism appeared plausible. Anyone could, if the compulsion of his greed were left alone by government, go into the space., which was luckily well stocked with natural resources, and by work become rich. Mounting evidence to the contrary has for the most part been censored out in public education and the press, both influenced by profiteers, until now tings have gone so far that the space has nearly been denied us. Ironically, corporate capitalism has for a century been allowed such sway that it has now, in the name of economic efficiency, almost cleared the space of exactly the people who wanted to enjoy it – small farmers, miners, and ranchers.”

– Robert Adams, Why People Photograph

“The truth is that the First Amendment was not meant to protect commercial free speech and that commercial free speech today is often the enemy of private speech. What change to dgrass-roots public health groups have agsint the huge assets and political power of the tobacco, alcohol, junk food, diet and other such industries? How can someone be elected to office who can’t afford advertising to counter the mudslinging of special interest groups?

These days our public policies often reflect our evasion of connection and of committed relationships – our short-term solutions, our abandonment of the poor, disabled, and mentally ill, our refusal to provide basic health care for everyone, even children, our dismissal of workers’ rights, and our eagerness to imprison and execute people when tehy are adolescents or adults as opposed to investing in programs that would help them while they are children.”

– Jean Kilbourne, Can’t Buy My Love

“The systems approach to public health problems is inherently political. The individual approach doesn’t rock the boat – it basically says that the world is fine, the environment is fine, but you, the individual, must shape up, resist temptation, stop being so weak-willed. An environmental approach questions the nature of the world – and inevitably confronts the corporations that depend on addiction for profit. For this reason, it has been very difficult ot get hte government, increasingly dpendent on donations from big business, to use this approach. It is also almost impossible to shift the focus from the individual to the environment without ‘offending the sponsor,’ which explains the general reluctance of the media to adopt this persepective. By now, many people don’t have the attention span necssary to track an issue for a long time.

As large, diversified corporations merge to create media dynasties, it becomes more and more difficult to get accurate information about anuything. Perhaps most insidiously, it becomes difficult to get information about the media conglomerates themselves.

Democracy itself is endangered when information is given to foster private economic gain rather than to educate and enlighten the public so it can make intelligent decisions. …Politicians are examined with a microscope by the media and are assumed to be corruptt, but the men who control the conglomerates are usually invisible. Thus, it is fashionable to hate the government, to be cynical and apathetic about politics, and yet to remain completely ignorant about the people who have even more influence on our lives. In recent years there has been almost complete alienation of the citizenry from its government. A profound distrust of government is encouraged by the big corporations because it is in their interest. After all, it is only the government that can regulate them.

We know that democracy requires active participation from an informed citizenry. Journalistic integrity is crucial to democracy, as is an aware and skeptical public audience. We have a cynical audience, an audience so apathetic that most people don’t even bother to vote.

We have much more to fear these days from corporate giantism than from big voernment, but it is very difficult to get people to understand this. It is the increasingly importnat role of advertising in political elections that necessitates huge campaign coffers, which in turn makes politicians dependent on corporations. Campaign finance reofrm might well be the most important issue of our time, but it is hard to put a sexy spin on it. – it won’t sell a lot of newspapers or draw huge television audiences.”

– Jean Kilbourne, Can’t Buy My Love

“Gregory Bateson describes the fundamental belief of Western culture that we can dominate, control, and have power over almost every aspect of our experience. We can get rid of pain, we can dominate people who threaten us, we can win in an y interaction, we can be invulnerable. Bateson theorizes that this belief is fundamentally erroneous and leads to addiction, which he sees as a disordered attempt to get to a more ‘correct’ state of mind, one in which we permit dependency, vulnerability, and mutuality. Bateson argues that we hav eno culturally sanctioned, nonaddictive way to achieve this state.

…According to [Claudia Bepko, being socialized in an erroneous belief system leads to addiction because incongruity may arise between what one believes and how one actually feels.”

– Jean Kilbourne, Can’t Buy My Love

“Sex in advertising and the media is often criticized from a puritanical perspective – there’s too much of it, it’s tooo blatant, it will encourage kids to be promiscuous, and so forth. But sex in advertising has far more to do with trivializing sex than promoting it, with narcissism than with promiscuity, with consuming than with connecting. The porblem is no that it is sinful, but that it is synthetic and cynical.”

– Jean Kilbourne, Can’t Buy My Love