Daily Archives: October 22, 2007

The Commodification of Experience

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In Wes Anderson’s new film, The Darjeeling Limited, three brothers from an aristocratic family meet in India to go on a “spiritual journey.” Loaded down with designer luggage, laminated trip itineraries, and a hired staffer (“Brendan”) with an albino disease, the dysfunctional trio embarks on a train ride through the richly spiritual terrain of India.

It is clear from the outset that the brothers—or at least Francis (Owen Wilson)—are here to experience something: something deep, profound, and hopefully life changing. And they are oh-so methodical about maximizing the “spirituality” of it all. Francis stuffs every spare moment of their schedule with a temple visit or some sort of feather prayer ritual. It might be odd and a little offensive that these three rich white guys—decked out in fitted flannel suits by Marc Jacobs—are prancing around such squalor, making light (by juxtaposition) of the decidedly exotic culture that surrounds them… But this is what makes the film funny. It’s a comedy.

But it also rings very true. These guys are swimming in things (designer sunglasses, clothes, trinkets, keychains, etc), but what they really want is to feel. And because acquiring commodities is in their DNA, they assume that these types of immaterial experiences can be collected too. Thus, their exotic pilgrimage to India.

The film made me think a lot about my own life, and how I increasingly feel drawn to experiences rather than things. It’s all about seeking those magic moments—whether on a vacation abroad or on a sunset walk on the beach—when we feel something more. And of course, it helps to have an appropriate song pumping through your iPod to fit whatever mood or genre of life you are living at that moment. In Darjeeling, the “iPod as soundtrack to a nicely enacted existential episode” is given new meaning.

In his book The Age of Access, Jeremy Rifkin applies this all very neatly to economic theory, pointing out that our post-industrial society is moving away from the physical production of material goods to the harnessing of lived experience as a primary economic value. For Rifkin, the challenge facing capitalism is that there is nothing left to buy, so consumers are “casting about for new lived experiences, just as their bourgeois parents and grandparents were continually in search of making new acquisitions.” Rifkin believes that the “new self” is less concerned with having “good character” or “personality” than in being a creative performer whose personal life is an unfolding drama built around accumulated episodes and experiences that fit into a larger narrative. Rifkin keenly articulates how this user orientation toward theatricalized existence creates a new economic frontier:

There are millions of personal dramas that need to be scripted and acted out. Each represents a lifelong market with vast commercial potential… For the thespian men and women of the new era, purchasing continuous access to the scripts, stages, other actors, and audiences provided by the commercial sphere will be critical to the nourishing of their multiple personas.

And so as we (the spoiled, affluent westerners among us, at least) become more and more dissatisfied with all the physical goods we’ve amassed, and begin to seek lived experiences and dramatic interaction as a new life pursuit, we must not delude ourselves that this is some higher goal, untainted by commercialism.

On the contrary, the economy is shifting to be ready for the “new selves” of this ever more de-physicalized era. The question is: are we prepared to allow our experiences to become commodities? Are we okay with the fact that our “to-buy” wishlists are now being replaced by “to do” lists, of equal or greater value to the marketplace? What happens when every moment of our lives becomes just another commodity—something we collect and amass to fill the showcase mantles of our memories?