Perhaps the most remarkable retailing trend of the past few years has been the rise of semi-wholesale stores such as Smart & Final, Home Depot, or Office Depot that sell to both small businesses and the general public. Ostensibly it is the promise of lower prices that lures customers to these emporia. But a neglected factor in their success is the retail customer’s special thrill at shopping, whether or not at wholesale prices, in the same store and in the same quantities as the professionals. Those large boxes of condiments and meat patties purchased at Smart & Final make the consumer imagine that he isn’t merely consuming but “producing”: that he is a retailer buying in quantity and reselling in consumable amounts to himself. Similarly, we are attracted to “professional quality” tools and gadgets of all kinds, including small trucks and “off-road” vehicles driven around cities at huge premiums in cost and operating expenses by those who wish to imagine themselves engaged in the productive activities for which these vehicles were presumably intended. If, in the case of highly differentiated products, we professionalize consumption itself by acquiring a yuppie connoisseurship in wines, clothes, furniture, and restaurants, in that of simple commodities, we like to give ourselves the means to imagine consumption as production. (Buying fine wines by the case combines the two tendencies.) This marginal erosion of the distinction between these two economic opposites tells us something precious about the market system, and about human exchange in general.
If paleontology has taught us one thing about human origin, it is that we must abandon the myth of homo faber. Protohumans had tools for perhaps hundreds of thousands of years before the advent of human language, their technology evolving at a glacial pace incompatible with event-driven cultural temporality. The Acheulian fisherman using a scraper is mentally far more advanced than the chimpanzee stripping a stick to poke for ants, but his problem-solving intelligence still does not reflect back upon itself. It is the event-nature of the scene of language that makes it possible to oppose production to consumption. Our originary production is the sign; our originary consumption is the sparagmos; the first defers, the second releases appetite. To produce is, in the first place, to defer consumption; conversely, consumption in the human sense exists only as the obverse of production. We produce the edible victim for the sparagmos only after we have produced the sign, that is, converted our gesture of consumption into a supplementary act of representation. Production generates peace by deferring appetite; consumption satisfies appetite but brings us to the brink of war. Whence our predilection for performing the latter while conceiving it as the former.
It might be objected that this is not true of traditional, aristocratic society, nor of its prolongation into the nineteenth century, with its dandy and snob victims of romantic ennui. Romantics are amateurs, not professionals; even when they produce, they prefer to see themselves as consuming. The dandy doesn’t shop at Smart & Final, nor anywhere else–shopping is for servants.
The aristocratic master of violence is incapable of understanding culture as “the deferral of violence through representation.” If the point of production is to generate peace, he subsists in a permanent state of war. Aristocratic militarism reflects the sharp dichotomy between agricultural production and exchange. The activities of tilling the soil and those of distributing its products are too divergent to sustain more than a trace of primitive egalitarianism. Yet the master’s originary model is the big-man of old, who first learned to profit from his surplus production to control the ritual center. Contrary to appearances, the noble is in the first place a producer, not a consumer. Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, with its relegation of production to the slave, is not originary. Recognition is not first given to him who inspires fear for one’s life, but to him who provides divine abundance. The separation of this provision from the physical labor of its production is a secondary phenomenon.
The modern dandy who disdains work does not really condemn production, for production is in the first place not making but exchange. His contempt for work was shared by the Athenian democrat as well as the medieval aristocrat. In agricultural societies, the “producer” in the social sense, which is the primary human sense, is not the laborer but the noble who appropriates and redistributes the product of his labor. Although Hannah Arendt’s category of “action” is biased toward the political, it hints at the primacy of ethics–the priority of interaction with humans over interaction with nature.
That different moments of history have different ethics is no argument for ethical relativism. Just as science and technology progress, so does ethical awareness, even if the “sentimental” reaction to this progress is at times more violent than the “naive” violence it replaces. The turn from aristocratic dandyism to a fascination with the “professional” reflects a deepened anthropological understanding. If constituted hierarchies have every reason to forget their source in the big-man’s supplementary labor, the market-system reestablishes the prestige, not of Marx’s undifferentiated “labor-power,” but of professional qualification. As a general rule, we produce one thing but consume many things. We are professional in one narrow area and amateur in all others. The dream of consumption as production allows us to retain our source of income while remaining able to imagine ourselves as “Renaissance men,” as significant producers in every sphere.
I have noted more than once in these Chronicles that modern market society attaches to its products wherever it can a supplementary sign of sacrality, a proof that the merchandise it is selling us was not really meant for the marketplace: “The priceless always costs a little more.” But this sacred aura is paradoxically shared by the professional who devotes all his efforts to the marketplace. The professional, to borrow Alexander Kojève’s terminology, is the “freed slave” of bourgeois society who understands how to extract human value from the world better than his former master. The cult of professionalism respects one who brings measurable value to human interaction. When I use my “professional strength” cleaner, I imagine that in cleaning my house I am performing a marketable task, just as does the boy shooting baskets in his Michael Jordan athletic shoes.
As I pointed out a propos of The Full Monty, there is no hard-and-fast distinction in mature market society between the activities of production and those of consumption; it all depends on what the public is willing to pay for. Emma Bovary anticipates this trend, as her story anticipates so many other aspects of contemporary consumer society. When, still a faithful wife, she hesitates to embark on her fatal horseback ride with Rodolphe, it was the prospect of purchasing a riding-costume that convinced her–l’amazone la décida. But if nineteenth-century Emma had only one place to shop–the boutique of “draper” Lheureux–today you’re likely to find her counterpart at Office Depot or Staples, buying office supplies for her home office.