the empire of scrounge

I read Empire of Scrounge by Jeff Ferrell on an eight-hour train ride north. Across the aisle a woman was reading a magazine article titled, “What to buy for the man who has everything.” There were pictures of products accompanied by bite-sized blurbs praising them.

Empire of Scrounge is about trash picking, scrounging, recycling, living off what others waste, selling scrap metal, collecting cans. It is a fascinating, articulate book, both narrative and academic in scope.

I let the book fall open at random and read a passage that I had underlined: “It’s long been my sense that, more than any other engine, corporate hyperconsumerism drives contemporary U.S. society, along the way constructing a seductive if sad sort of store-bought commonality among many of its members. As disturbing, the profligate waste produced by this endless hyperconsumptive panic seems less an unfortunate by-product than a component essential to its continuation. (5)”

Outside of the window bright yellow fields of canola slid past us as they had been for hours. It was the first time I had ever seen canola plants, though I recognized them from the picture on the bottles of oil at the supermarket.

I glanced back across the aisle at the magazine reader. Her eyes were still fixed upon the page, studying each item suggested for the ominous Man With It All. (Does he really exist, I wonder?) The article, directly juxtaposed with the thesis of the book on my lap, becomes a direct example of Ferrell’s point, presuming as it does that though there are people whose lives and homes are completely saturated with material goods, these people still need to have more. “Having everything” must be redefined as “still not enough,” else sales plummet, marring the economy.

The article also insinuates in its unspoken premises that gifts have nothing to do with need. Which is another way of saying that consumption, buying things, is an important and meaningful activity in and of itself. Even if your budget is a bit stretched (there are articles about this too), even if you already “have everything,” you must continue to consume, else all, else YOU, will be lost.

So companies invent new products to ensure that there is always something new to buy, and magazines print articles advising consumers on acceptable consumer practices. The only acceptable practice being to never stop or slow down. There are even shirts and buttons available to this tune, emblazoned with sayings like “Shop ’til you drop” and on sale now at your local retail outlet for 9.99.

There are encyclopedias worth of “literature” on this subject, though they are rarely described as such by their readers. Stores filled with magazines whose main “articles”—that is, advertisements thinly veiled as articles—win people marketing awards.

What is fashion but a clever way to convince people that their clothing, though still perfectly wearable, must be discarded and replaced with the new season’s trends? (Arguably there is some fashion that could fall into the category “art,” but this is generally not the subject of Cosmo’s fashion spreads.) What are fashion magazines but propaganda machines for this myth? People study these magazines like religious fanatics pour over their bibles. As a teenager, I did it myself. Each month’s issue the new Word, the scriptures to be interpreted and lived in an attempt to be socially acceptable, to have words like “hip” and “fashionable” fastened onto one’s identity moniker.

The products for the Man With It All will inevitably be purchased and will, just as inevitably, be thrown away again. After all, it was never the product itself that was important, not in a case like this. It was the act of buying it that mattered. What happens afterward is irrelevant.

If I “have nothing” (as defined by magazine articles) then maybe in a healthier parallel universe, I am the one with everything. Because I will be able to decide for myself what having “everything” means. And everything will have to do with life, with food and shelter and joyful relationships. Every stilled shopper is a stilled economic cog. Let’s get lost.

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