In the 1950s, the Beat movement offered an alternative to North American capitalist culture. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and other writers, artists, and hipsters challenged post-war American conservatism and conformity. The extent of the Beats’ social and artistic influence is still vigorously discussed. The rise of conformist consumer culture and accompanying advertising in the post-war America is a backdrop against which we can understand the dissenting Beats’ creative output.
As one might expect, different Beat writers provide slightly different comments on American society’s shortcomings. Perhaps the harshest assessment of the “human artifact” comes from William Burroughs.
Burroughs was famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for his books Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict (1953), Queer (written between 1951 and 1953, published in 1985), Naked Lunch (1959) and many other works written up until his death in 1997.
Burroughs life provided a rare insight; Unredeemed Drug Addict hints at the autobiographical nature of his early output. Burroughs identified the mechanism used by the powerful to gain and retain that power. He called this menace “control,” and increasingly used drug addiction as a central metaphor for control in consumer culture.
The most literate of drug addicts states it plainly: “The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.” Burroughs may have been aware of American writer and art critic Harold Rosenberg’s 1956 discussion of the proletarianization of the world and its ultimate outcome that “the commodity becomes human as the human being becomes commodity.” It is, however, more likely that Burroughs intuitively understood the economy of addiction.
Many who have had to deal with alcohol and drug related life problems learn that these substances present the ultimate bait-and-switch. In 1961, Belgian-born Francophone artist, poet and occasional psychedelic drug enthusiast Henri Michaux offered this analysis of his creative experiments with mescaline: “Drugs bore us with their paradises. Let them give us a little knowledge instead. This is not a century for paradises.”
The statement above is short but filled with wonderful poetic backtracking. I like to think his brief remark also reveals Michaux’s awareness of the essential paradox of drugs. The paradise promised by that first drink is far different than what is delivered in the very last handful of pills you will swallow. The joy is gone but the compulsion is still there. Successful narcotic sales depend on this compulsion, as does contemporary advertising.
“This is not a century for paradises,” but we live in a world where consumer goods – PlayStation consoles, iPhones, and cars – “speak” to consumers, asking, pleading or demanding to be purchased. It is an era of uncontrolled misunderstanding and willful misuse of the word “need.” It is a time when addiction experts are hired to “improve” the design of video and online gaming, making it more difficult to quit the game and more likely that new players will be attracted and stay longer.
“A functioning police state needs no police,” Burroughs once said. His writing predicts that the institutions of control will be successful; individuals will lose their rights and freedoms or perhaps surrender them in exchange for any shiny new product. If we are under the control of manufacturers, advertisers, social media providers, as well as the government, judicial, and police authority that Burroughs mistrusted, then we must surely echo Michaux’s declaration.
To survive in contemporary consumer culture we need to say: “new trucks bore us, SUVs bore us, best in-class mileage bores us, your exclusive line of lawn and hair care products bores us, the new underarm deodorant chemically formulated to deal with stress sweat bores us, toilet paper that leaves less behind bores us, softer, smoother skin in just seven days bores us, game shows, TV talk shows, talk radio, unscripted television, YouTube, and Facebook bore us.” We are bored, not because the products are good, or bad, or better, or worse than other merchandise out there (the pretence of choice is a fundamental component of control) but rather, because we are tired of being sold to the product. We are tired of being degraded and simplified.