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Commodities And The Displacement Of Desire
Dr.Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: Daily Times
Dated: 28th November, 2002

This article analyzes advertisement in contemporary market economies, to illustrate the fact, that consumer consciousness, far from being 'sovereign' as Neo-classical theory assumes, is systematically structured to serve the needs of capital accumulation. An attempt is made to show that advertisements are essentially a system of signs and symbols, and as such constitute a powerful language that by reaching into the inner most terrain of our psyche, influence not only our tastes and preferences but our very attitude to life.


Desire manifests the human impulse, to transcend one's separateness through connection with the other. This "other" may be the ineffable transience of a flower in bloom, or the eternal beauty of a lake at sunset, another human being, or the totality of existence. Thus, desire expresses a highly evolved need to connect. It is desire that activates the dialectic between the actual and the possible. Here is how Sultan Bahu, the great Punjabi Sufi poet puts it:


[That which the heart desires is always a step ahead of the actual. As soon as one possibility is actualized, a new possibility is born.]

If there was no longing in us, the creative endeavour unique to human beings would wither away. We would then be lifeless, i.e., mere objects.

Now objects unlike human beings can be possessed, or used according to their function, but cannot be related to at an emotional level. Yet the dominant social form that desire takes in our society, is the "desire" for objects. This is an everyday phenomenon, that we are all part of and which we therefore take for granted. However, when we subject it to serious scrutiny we discover that it is a truly fantastic phenomenon. How is it that desire has been displaced from its creative origin and directed to those strange objects called "commodities"? How is it that we have come to love commodities and use human beings? To highlight the peculiarity of this inversion let us see it in the perspective of Bulleh Shah:


[The distinction between the body, desire and property became clear at the moment when I set to light my hut and felt the warmth of the self"].

Thus, for Bulleh Shah it is only at the dramatic moment of complete renunciation of property that the magical illusion of commodities is overcome. A magic so powerful that it obfuscates the distinction between desire and commodities. (Tunn, Munn, Dhunn). There is the longing of the heart, there is the body (through which both the heart's desire and greed for goods is apprehended sensually and then there are commodities). The light of Bulleh Shah's burning hut clarifies these dimensions of human experience.

The question that now arises is, how this magical spell is weaved in contemporary society, whereby commodities are re-presented to us through the media as images of fantasy. Their material attributes are dimmed, and our disbelief is suspended to make us experience them as pure objects of desire.


Consider a motor-car advertisement. The car is not represented in terms of its real or material functions, but is instead re-presented to us through a set of images that shift us into a realm of fantasy (My Toyota is fantastic, it says). It appears to us not as a means of transport, but as a receptacle of sexuality, efficacy and power. An after-shave lotion does not merely have a pleasant fragrance, but gives to the person wearing it a "feel of power". (Drakkar after shave!). Similarly, for example, cigarettes are not just things that give a kick and clog up the lungs. They give magical access to the "Spirit of Enterprise". (The ad accompanying the slogan, shows a sailboat, its sails filled with fresh sea breeze, embarking on a voyage). Thus, attributes which are organic to us as human beings, are transposed into the commodity through the device of advertisement. The subliminal suggestion is that without it we are nothing. By possessing it we enter a realm where we can re-appropriate our qualities of grace and power; we gain recognition, and become authentic through our possessions. Thus, a new cult has emerged in contemporary market societies. It is based on perceiving commodities as totems which contain qualities which we once possessed as human beings.

The grammar of the advertised image has three main elements: (1) It suspends our disbelief through the creation of a dream like format. This is achieved through music, soft focus and editing. (2) The commodity within the ad is placed in a context quite different from the one in which we would actually observe it. This is achieved through association, or metaphor, just as in a dream. For example, a toothpaste would appear not in the environment of a toilet but will have mountain streams or stately mansions as the back drop. (3) The advertised commodity is pulled out of physical proportion. Thus, the Omega wrist watch ("the only watch to have been worn on the moon") lying on the lunar landscape, appears bigger than the astronaut. In the context of the ad it is the wrist watch and not the man on the moon that is the centre of attraction.

The power of these psychological devices is derived from the fact that through their dream structure they get an access over the unconscious mind. In the context of a dream format the clever advertiser can suggest attributes to us, which if articulated across the office table 9 O'Clock on a week day would appear quite absurd. The haunting eyes of the girl (who with a single sip of tea goes into a trance) and the serene motion of the whirling dervishes, become integrated with the taste of the tea being advertised.

The culture based on an insatiable desire for commodities is of course an imperative of the growth process in a market economy. If firms are to survive in a competitive environment, they must grow in terms of both the volume and range of goods. J.K. Galbraith has indicated two characteristics of large firms that are relevant here: (1) They have a long term time horizon. i.e. they can only recover profits over a relatively long period of time. (2) They plan production. The consequence of these characteristics of modern firms is that they are obliged to achieve security by controlling both the sources of supply of their raw materials as well as demand for their products. Therefore, they can afford neither strictly sovereign states nor sovereign consumers. As a great social scientist puts it, "The capitalist system not only produces goods that satisfy needs but also the needs which these goods satisfy."

In days of yore the snake charmers of the sub-continent carried a piece of lamb skin which they called a GIDDER SINGHI. (and which you could acquire for a few rupees). As you heard the plaintive strains of the snake charmer's flute you were drawn into the charm, and thought that if you carried the GIDDER SINGHI your dreams would be fulfilled. Today all commodities are presented to us as Gidder Singhis through far more resonant images which enter our unconscious mind. The grammar of the projected image subtly suggests that it is not the inherent function of the commodity, but its magical appeal that is important. It transposes our desire to connect with life, into greed for commodities.

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