Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Material World

George Carlin hits the mark.  American households are drowning in "stuff".  But why?

There's a ready answer that many preachers and people of faith would give.  Materialism! Too much attention, too much attachment to physical objects; not enough to the realm of the spirit. Surely this is the ground for a culture of endless accumulation.

I don't think this is right; or, a least, I don't think it cuts deep enough. When you think of a greedy materialist, you might think of a miser returning every evening to gloat over the beautiful objects he has hoarded.  But that kind of greed is not really characteristic of consumer society.  When I've acquired the IPhone 4, I may gloat for a while; but only until my neighbor gets an IPhone 5. Perpetual dissatisfaction, rather than gloating satisfaction, is what I feel about my stuff.

William Cavanaugh writes, "What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment.  People do not hoard money; they spend it.  People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things...Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that's why it is not simply buying but shopping that is the heart of consumerism."

What if our unsatisfying overconsumption is a symptom, not of materialism, but of a restless and misguided spiritual quest?  What if we're not materialistic enough?

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