To Have or Not To Have
In my old flat-sharing community, there was a poster whose platitudinous exclamation I quote from time to time: Who lives, disturbs. The updated version would probably read: Who lives, destroys. For he who lives cannot not consume — and every consumption has its costs. As is well known, the metabolism of rich Westerners is responsible for a massive mountain of waste: garbage, CO2, and words, so it would be most beneficial for the rest of the planet not to be there in the first place. But because this cannot be true for the living, one has to settle down in the sinfulness of existence — and yet, at best, with good humor.
Refusal is the best way to reduce the burden we place on ourselves. Don’t fly, don’t use the car, don’t eat meat, buy second-hand goods — the usual suspects. And that’s where it gets difficult to be in a good mood. Because doing without means leaving something behind that you could actually have. Which doesn’t seem very attractive to many people. Having “more” is better than having “less,” just as “new” enjoys a better reputation than “old,” especially in fashion and art.
More is more
Karl Lagerfeld, Lena Dunham, Jeff Koons, Guido Maria Kretschmer, Donald Rumsfeld, Mel Brooks, Mark Cuban, Robin Baum
Accordingly, the demand not to do something or not to buy something is perceived as an attempted encroachment on personal freedom. This applies not only to cherished behaviors, but also to what one does not (yet) have. In both cases, fears of loss are tickled — in the first, the fear of having to change one’s habits; in the second, of being unable to change.
After all, the self-image hangs on what you have and do. In the design of said image, things are central instruments and measuring tools at the same time. Being, just as change, is linked to a concrete form which produces and confirms them:
Before the clothing racks of Zara and H&M, people were not so much concerned with possessions as with this feeling that buying new things gave them immediately and effortlessly: an increase in being.
Annie Ernaux, The Years
Renunciation means denying oneself the opportunity for change as provided by consumption. To make up for this and increase the value of the less, strategies and tactics that lie outside of consumption are needed. The call for renunciation then falls under the more significant announcement that, for example, Peter Sloterdijk copied from Rilke: “You have to change your life.”
I doubt that talking to oneself among poets (Rilke with the Apollo bust) or recommending religiously grounded asceticism (Sloterdijk) — both solitary practices that tend to be remote from society — are so enticing that they will be adopted by the masses and catch on at a planetary level, but who knows. Yet another question is whether such a world full of ascetics would be desirable.
From this attempt to validate refusal, one recognizes that you must leave the playground to increase its attractiveness. The value of renunciation lies beyond consumption; those who want to resist its commands, promises, and profits must reward themselves elsewhere. Deeply anchored automatisms are to be countered, stuttered or brought to a standstill by changing the register and opposing them with ecological, psycho hygienic or spiritual motives.
For in the market, renunciation has no form. It only points to the non-occurrence of an event. While every act of purchase, no matter how small and banal, actualizes and validates consumption, renunciation as an invisible expression in the market, and as such, it is not being counted. Only as a large number of non-purchases, which must also be actively observed by someone in a particular area (how else should one notice non-occurrence?), is renunciation perceived as an intentional gesture. But only to be immediately reclassified as a problem, namely an unacceptable refusal to participate in the market.
On another social level, the problem repeats itself. We don’t have a (positive) form that makes renunciation sexy. Compared to the many opportunities offered by consumption, rejection seems weak. Hardly anyone will say in small talk: “I didn’t buy a car again” or “My pants are 5 years old” to gain distinction. Instead, such statements are always in danger of lapsing into a morally arrogant, accusatory tone that not only obliquely ignores the reality of things, but also tries to spoil everyone else’s fun with them. For it is nicer, as I said, to have things and to use them, to talk about them and thus to exchange ideas with them — not against them — about proper living.
As long as renunciation does not appear as something beautiful, or desirable, it is merely a messenger of the discomfort that results from the tension between the personal necessity of consumption and the planetary necessity of renunciation. Our ignorance, however, is sufficiently great to transform this discomfort only sporadically into guilt — briefly, one feels bad but then continues as usual.
If you manage to revalue the renunciation into a beautiful thing, it does not lead to feelings of guilt but to something nice. Unfortunately, we haven’t found a shared form to celebrate it in a good way yet, so for the time being, it will remain a personal or small group act of self-discipline. We still have no idea how to confront the giant of the market as the large collective that we are.
Originally published at https://diedinge.net on March 12, 2023.