Story on a (Cancer) Stick: Commodities & the Crisis of Cultural Narrative

As an attempt to reduce smoking and its associated health costs, the Australian government will later this year mandate that all tobacco products be sold in uniformly plain green packaging, with the most prominent aspect of the packaging being a series of graphic health warnings. Debates have raged for months on the wisdom of this measure, but this debate ignores a much subtler, more powerful, cultural dynamic underpinning the consumption of cigarettes.

In volume one of his Das Kapital, Karl Marx observed that industrialised societies have become marked by what he termed "commodity fetishism". In a landscape where everything is turned into a thing for exchange for profit, commodities have become fetishised and perceived to have a life of their own, a value that independent of their material structure or the processes that created them. Thinkers in the tradition of the Frankfurt School have taken this analysis a step further. Whilst in the 19th century a commodity was seen as being an independent entity with an independent value of its own marked by a dollar sign, the commodity has in the 20th century acquired the capacity convey stories to their consumers.

The problem this narrativisation of commodities creates was highlighted by Conor Sweeney of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, who used the example of cigarettes, which really came to common usage after they became mass produced in the First World War as a means to deliver a quick tabacco hit to soldiers caught up in the main business of fighting. The smoke, Sweeney noted, became associated with an ideal situation in war time, the escape from the grind of killing, the "as good as it gets" moment that the soldier longed for. We, living long after the two World Wars, still have a similar association with the smoke. Smoking for the smoker is linked with leisure, a moment of communion with other smokers, the achievement of a goal, and the list goes on.

This can just as easily apply to other commodities, but the problem exemplified by the cigarette is twofold. First, the story is not inherent in the commodity itself but has been injected into the commodity by powerful commercial players who have an interest in selling the commodity for profit. Given its capacity to drench the social landscape with advertising and the domination of that landscape by  the shopping mall, there exists a massive power assymetry between the producer of the commodity and its consumer. More often than not, the dice is loaded squarely in favour of the commercial player. 

The second aspect of this problem is more subtle, and is coupled by another problem of the loss of a central organic binding narrative within Western culture more broadly, and within the lives of each individual more specifically. When a central cultural narrative is either ignored or expunged, cultures or persons will clamour to find some alternative - any alternative - and the multiplicity of commercial players with their array of commodities on sale would are more than willing to provide that alternative for you, provided you fork out the cash to buy their product. 

The result is a tragic culture constituted by a multiplicity of narratives with nothing in common to haromise them. Individuals become fragmented as they slowly meld with the collages of narratives conveyed by the differing products they consume. What compounds the tragedy is the fact that many of these essentially manufactured narratives, because they are essentially manufactured, will not even address the consumer's need for a fulfilling and sustaining narrative. Indeed, the narrative of the commodity is deliberately designed not to provide that fulfilling narrative, leaving a gap that the consumer thinks could be filled when he moves onto the next act of consumption. 

Thus, the government's measure to curb consumption by mandating uniform packaging may work as a short term deterrent by removing the narrative capacities of a cigarette's packaging, but it removes only an aspect of the cigarettes narrative producing capacities (think of the number of other ways cigarettes are glorified in our entertainment forms). Furthermore, the measure ignores the larger cultural malaise - that of the lack of a harmonising narrative - that drives people to commodities like cigarettes in the first place.

If the above analysis is true, then the Church's contribution to the antidote is not so much to "lay down the law" with the culture, but to offer to that culture the narrative embodied in the life of Christ, as a harmonising narrative that gives to the culture a "life to the full" (John 10:10). This is so because the narrative is not manufactured by industrial players and foisted upon hapless human recipients, but by the one who not only created but assumed the human condition.


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