Manufacturers always seek to minimize costs and maximize profits. This is an obvious principle of modern capitalism…but is it the only principle? I would say it hasn’t always been the only principle in effect. Most of the time, it’s been balanced by other factors. Businesses saw their customers as more than just wallets and purses, they looked to cultivate good will over the long term, and they took pride in the quality of their work. Because they saw themselves as part of a community, even if in some cases it was a community of national scale, they valued their reputations for civility and fair dealing.
Post-modern capitalism is different. It’s more a mechanical process of extracting as much money as possible as fast as possible from the consumer. I call it post-modern because I think the concept of the simulacrum adds something to our understanding of it.
Music stands were the first example I noticed. When I was an undergrad music major, my school replaced the older-than-dirt music stands with new ones. This was partly because the old ones had paint wearing off and looked kind of ratty, and partly because many of them had been lost through attrition. They tended to wander off to church gigs and weddings, and most students seemed to think they were entitled to take one with them after graduation.
The new stands arrived, freshly put together and spray painted, and were immediately subjected to the harshest ridicule we could dish out. I almost felt sorry for them…but not quite, because they were a bitch to deal with. The steel was unevenly cut and thin as paper, like the metallic equivalent of the Wal-Mart bargain rack shirt that no one wanted. But more important, the screw that attached the stand to the base wouldn’t ever stay tight. Within a few days, the stands were swaying and reeling around in circles like drunken…well, musicians. They were barely out of the boxes when one of violinists had a look at them and referred to them as “stand-shaped objects.” Simulacra, in other words. They weren’t really music stands. They looked like the old ones at a distance, but actually they were something different.
Likewise, when I buy a can opener that opens two or three cans and then breaks, I haven’t really bought a can opener. By that I mean, I haven’t bought something that was at all designed to open cans. It’s something that was designed to look like what we call “Can Opener” until I took it off the rack and paid money for it. At that point, its purpose was fully accomplished. The fact that I may (or may not) be able to open cans with it the next day is completely incidental.
This is in contrast with the more civil way of doing business, where the product is still designed to make a profit for the producer but is also designed to function in some way for the consumer. In the po-mo world, the consumer item is kind of a tangible lie. In a way, we’re surrounded by lies. You don’t have a pencil sharpener, to take one example that a friend of mine recently complained about and that frustrated me just today. You have a pencil-sharpener-shaped object. And a hose-shaped object, which splits open after a few weeks, and then you have to duct tape it if you want the water to end up in your garden instead of your basketball court. And a car-shaped object, which may get you where you want to go for a while, but its real job is to wear out its constituent parts and get you back into the dealer’s garage…and as soon as you get frustrated enough with the repair bills, back into his showroom. And so on. In some cases you can get the real items if you really want to, but you have to pay a premium. Most can’t afford it.
Anyway, this is why we can put a man on the moon but we supposedly can’t make a can of deodorant that will stop spraying when you let go of the button (this is a new one on me, but it’s happened twice now). The corporations aren’t particularly trying to make useful products. They make objects that look and act more or less like what we recognize as useful products…but not for too long, lest we find the opportunity to spend our money on something else.