Rebelling against capitalistic greed from my bed 🤑
Stories are a counter (consumer) culture
From Business to Theology to Literature
Dracula by Bram Stoker was published in 1897. I’m tucked in bed, reading the novel for class in 2023. 126 years later.
I. Innovation is obsolete
As consumers, we are never satisfied; whether innate or conditioned, our desire to constantly acquire more is the basis of capitalism. In response, producers (business owners) must unceasingly appeal to a consumer who’s not only unhappy but also does not have the ability to be happy, at least not for a prolonged period of time.
In business, this pattern of constantly producing new ideas to please unsatisfiable customers has a shiny name: innovation. The concept of “innovation” is praised to no end, associated with “creativity,” “cutting-edge,” and “progress.” Yet, at its core, innovation really is the commodification of ideas.
Have you ever wondered why there are a million different types of Oreos? Double Stuf Oreos, Golden Oreos, Birthday Cake Oreos, Cookie Dough Oreos, Mint Oreos, Halloween Oreos, Red Velvet Oreos, S’mores Oreos, Thin Oreos, etc.
Enter, the product lifecycle:
The product lifecycle tells us that every product will eventually decline in sales. Thus, when sales decline, another, new product must be introduced to keep consumers engaged with the brand.
Essentially, every product —no matter how amazing (or innovative) the idea is— will eventually become obsolete.
You could make the counterargument that certain innovations have certainly changed society and are therefore not obsolete, such as the iPhone, but, now, iPhones are the perfect example of the commodification of ideas. Each iteration, no matter how amazing, has to be superseded within a year with a version that’s “even better.” I put that term in quotations because nowadays they just stick on another camera and call it a day. Rather than stopping and appreciating innovation, corporations race to come up with the next new thing.
This behavior is in response to a consumer who’s never satisfied.
II. Hedonic adaptation
In my Theology class called “Justice and Consumer Culture,” we discussed a phenomenon that’s very familiar to us all: human greed.
Regardless of if you explain it spiritually, secularly, economically, etc. most of us would agree that we, as human beings, are selfish. We like things that make us feel good. And we can’t ever get enough of whatever makes us feel good.
Barry Schwartz sums it up nicely in “Why Decisions Disappoint: The Problem of Adaptation” (an excerpt of which we were assigned for homework): “we get used to things and, and then we start to take them for granted.”
Schwartz refers to this phenomenon of “hedonic adaptation” and expands on this idea, noting that “novelty can change someone’s hedonic standards so that what was once good enough, or even better than that, no longer is.”
Business is both fueled by this hedonic adaptation and is constrained by this phenomenon. And so, despite its shiny branding, “innovation” in business rarely stems from inspiration. Rather, it’s oftentimes a forced necessity because novelty sells. All businesses sell some sort of pleasure/convenience. Thus, both consumer and producer are in lockstep, chained to one another, mutually perpetuating this distinctly human insatiable greed, this “hedonic adaptation.”
“And when [human beings] consume, they do experience pleasure —as long as the things they consume are novel. But, as people adapt— as the novelty wears off— pleasure comes to be replaced by comfort… Comfort is nice enough, but people want pleasure. And comfort isn’t pleasure. ” (Schwartz, “Why Decisions Disappoint: The Problem of Adaptation”)
Schwartz offers a way to reclaim this agency and break the cycle of hedonic adaptation: gratitude.
Although I agree that gratitude is an antidote to hedonic adaptation, I also offer up some other terms: observation, deliberation, patience, and marveling are all ways to slow down and appreciate not just what we have, but the ingenuity behind each of the products we consume.
There are pockets of solace in our society. Little safe havens, insulated from the constant pressure of keeping up with hedonic adaptation.
Literature is one of the few commodities which usurps this endless cycle. Stories can transcend time, and they push their consumers (readers) to momentarily disengage from hedonic adaptation. Reading is the opposite of instant gratification; stories are ideas/concepts, which have not fallen victim to this concept of “innovation.” They can be appreciated and enjoyed for years to come; stories never become obsolete.
III. Stories as a rejection of hedonic adaptation
This semester, I read Dracula by Bram Stoker and was enthralled by the story. The prose gave me goosebumps, evocative to the point where I became slightly paranoid at my surroundings. Chapters were left on cliff-hangers, and I raced through the pages.
There is a reason why certain stories have endured the test of time. Old “classics” are captivating; oftentimes, they started out as entertaining stories for the masses. Dracula is over a century old, and I, along with many others in contemporary times, still invested hours and hours absorbing a story older than our great-grandparents.
Literature never becomes obsolete; we read and re-read the same stories throughout the generations. The ability to constantly appreciate the same story over again is diametrically opposed to both hedonic adaptation; it temporarily frees readers from their insatiable greed.
“There was a fearful scream which almost froze our hearts to hear. As he had placed the Wafer on her forehead, it had seared it— had burned into the flesh as though it had been a piece of white-hot metal. My poor darling’s brain told her the significance of the fact as quickly as her nerves received the pain of it; and the two so overwhelmed her that her overwrought nature had its voice in that dreadful scream.” (Stoker 316)
I mean, come on, how can you not be impressed by writing like that?!?
In school, when reading essays, English teachers also ask “so, what?” Why does your essay matter?
Under capitalism, hedonic adaptation runs rampant; stories provide reprieve from exhaustive, insatiable dissatisfaction for both producer (writers) and consumer (readers).
For Writers (Producers of Stories):
Writing stories (essays, blogs, journal entries, etc.) for pleasure gives us freedom as producers, from having to constantly cater to hedonic adaptation.
When we write blog posts, we write for an audience but are not bound by what the audience wants to read. Rather, should nobody read our writing (like in a diary), there is still intrinsic value in our words, and they can still transcend time. Think about Emily Dickinson, whose poetry wasn’t published and popularized until after her death. In a weird way, by not becoming famous until after dying, she’s preserved her freedom. When writing for pleasure, there is nobody saying, “this won’t sell.” Our ideas and concepts can percolate forever at no cost. Should our work resonate with an audience, fantastic! But, if not, that’s okay too.
For Readers (Consumers of Stories):
Reading stories is a way for readers to rebel against our innate selfishness. We should read as means of rebelling against our perpetual dissatisfaction.
There’s this sentiment that there ‘s “not ethical consumption under capitalism.” But, consuming stories (which is different from buying books…), seems to be one of the few ways we can find respite from our insatiable human greed, which is exacerbated under capitalism. Rather than instant gratification which leaves us searching for the next hit, we have to work for our gratification (we have to read words on a page…), and, because of this “labor,” our gratification becomes satisfaction.
Consumer culture is often rightfully recognized as wasteful, but what is not talked about as often is how IDEAS are wasted too. Each good idea, no matter how ingenious, has an expiration date in the corporate world before it’s trashed in favor of something newer and shinier. But, writing and reading on the other hand— the value of a story is not as volatile and is often preserved throughout time.
That’s why writing is so amazing; writers (writing for pleasure) don’t look for the idea that will be the most popular, we look for an outlet to express ideas, regardless of if they resonate or not. That’s why reading is so amazing; readers don’t look for the shiniest cover, we look for rich stories, sometimes hidden in old torn, dusty pages of a cracked book.