The Commodification of Experience


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?


6 responses to “The Commodification of Experience

  1. I just decided earlier today to “say no” to all those attractive “to do” lists. I am effectively removing excess from my life–not because I want to know what it feels like, or to ‘experience’ it–and maybe pursuing simplicity fits into this commidification of experience, and there’s some marketer out there scheming a way to sell me more of it, so be it–when it comes to a practice, for me pursuing simplicity is the only way I know how to live soulfully.

  2. I agree with the idea that pursuing simplicity is really our last frontier of commercial-free living (that is, if our version of “simplicity” doesn’t require buying exclusively from Whole Foods and American Apparel)… But sometimes we just have to be okay with the fact that pretty much every thing we might do after stepping outside of our house is in some way a commodified experience (if only in our minds… not necessarily in any sort of economic sense). Alas, why think so much about it from a meta-perspective? We should just live our lives as we think they should be lived. If the market benefits, so be it…

  3. Yes. Can’t wait to see this movie and read this book. For a blog-hater, Brett, you have a shit-hot blog.

  4. wouldn’t you say that every moment that actually is an existential episode is collected in our memories? aren’t testimonies… “i was like this and doing that… and i was so moved and i went to the altar and cried and repented and…” essentially on our mantles?

    is it about the motives that separates whether something is authentic or commodified ? do we go and do these “to do” lists to be able to collect and showcase our “done lists” or to actually be changed?

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Cat. I think the difference between authentic “existential episodes” and more commodified experiences has everything to do with motivation: are we setting out or being intentional about having a “moment” or creating a “memory” of some kind? Or are we just LIVING it? I think when it is the former case, we fall into this commodification trap that reduces authentic experience to a “thing” we can plan to do, do, and then store in our memories. I often think of what digital photography is doing… with every experience we have that is remotely interesting, our first impulse is increasingly to take pictures of it–to “document” this happening or event in our lives. But if our chief concern is having a means to recall or revisit it in the future, what is the value of the present? Of the actual experience?

  6. Yeah, I understand exactly what you mean.

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