Invisible Goods

The paradox of a materialist society. We consume a very large number of goods—not least intermediate goods and services which really are needs rather than desires. But what about the goods which we might be expected actually to enjoy? Well, responses are mixed, but there is often some guilt in there; a tendency to explain them away as needs which leave us with little reasonable alternative; a hesitation to celebrate them as material artefacts in their own right.

In this sense the modern market economy is less materialistic than those traditional societies for which goods and their conspicuous display were central to festival and culture, over and above providing for subsistence. Along with all other forms of communication, goods, in all their extravagance and unnecessariness, drew the lines of social relationships. As the anthropologists Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood write,I85

Forget the idea of consumer irrationality. Forget that commodities are good for eating, clothing and shelter; forget their usefulness and try instead the idea that commodities are good for thinking; treat them as a nonverbal medium for the human creative faculty.I86

For various reasons, goods in our materialistic culture have become, in a sense, invisible—because they are losing their implicit functions—the symbolism, the social function which ought to travel with them. Here are some examples: food, in addition to its overt function of providing nutrition, also has, or had, an implicit function in reciprocal giving and in the daily interaction round a table, without which the durability of the household in any structured sense is improbable. The implicit function of clothes as signals of social belonging, courtesy and standing has waned. Sport has lost much of its implicit but crucial function of ceremony and play, and is left with the overt but futile business of winning. Perhaps sex has lost a bit of its implicit function in cementing relationships and is becoming a simpler, reduced proposition.

The effect of this disenchantment, this denial of the spirit and deeper significance of the currency of goods, services and behaviour with which we live, is to make it harder to recall anything about them at all. The object was eaten, worn, contested or had, but the implicit function—which is the only bit that engages the mind, emotions and spirit—probably did not happen at all, and if it did, you must have blinked at the wrong moment. Goods are finally becoming instrumentalised, invisible except for their instrumental purpose.

Austerity, in a sense, is upon us ahead of schedule.


Related entries:

Carnival, Needs and Wants, Ceremony, Composition, Intentional Waste, Ritual.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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