The National Catholic Review
John F. Kavanaugh

I recently made my yearly pilgrimage to Abercrombie & Fitch. Actually, it’s only a three-year old tradition, prompted by a Time magazine article from February 2000 that gave an account of that company’s phenomenal success. Its sales had increased from $165 million to over a billion dollars in five years. The number of stores multiplied tenfold. Its quarterly megalog’ has become a youth manual, the article went, noting its close connection to teen culture and the smart college set.

The megalog, or catalogue, was what I was looking for. Close to 300 pages in length, it is divided into three sections. The first third of the book is made up of semiclad and unclad, usually contorted models with empty stares. This year’s edition has text written by a postmodern Marxistthe most important philosopher working todaysuperimposed in bold print on the pages of bodies and vacuous faces.

After such philosophical gems as Back to school means learn sex, A friend is someone I can betray with love and Sex has nothing to do with sin, the capitalist-shilling Marxist ends with you can have critical theory and nudity and enjoy it too. (I know he’s going to say it’s all irony. If so, he’s still an ironist on the take.)

Following a long middle section displaying clothes without models, the megalog presents little interviews with rock and movie stars, suggestions on how to star in a college porn film, insider reviews and recommendations of videos or albums and a sell-out advice column by a college-based Catholic priest.

The catalogue features a warning, Editor’s note: due to mature content parental consent suggested for readers under eighteen. When I approached the sales counter to buy the book, I noticed that the two young people behind the counter looked vaguely like the models in the catalogue: same cuts to the washed-out hair, A.&.F muscle shirts, same expressionless faces. Behind them were huge wall-size photographs, apparently from the catalogue. In fact, there were mural-like photos all over the store.

Most striking of all, however, were the two customers in line before me: a fiftyish grandma with her late twentyish daughter buying some cool Abercrombie & Fitch clothes for a preteenager, who would soon become another walking commercial in the commercial culture. Such are the ways of the consumer society: the older generation forming the younger first into consumers, then into promoters and then into products themselves.

One of the interviews in the A.&.F catalogue features Nikki Reed, the 14-year-old writer and star of Thirteen, a movie that records the harrowing life of two cool kids. As Entertainment Weekly put it, the two girls flaunt the porno fashion signifiers of a 21st-century trash princess: hip-huggers slung down to the pelvic bone, eye glitter, navel ring, tongue ring, proud specimens of the consumer culture. The review in Entertainment Weekly, written by Owen Gleiberman, merits further attention: What’s eerie about Thirteen’ is the way that everything Tracy goes through hooks into a corporate advertising culture that has become nearly metaphysical in its impact: not just the clothes and the accessories or the standards of beauty, but the whole subjugation of identity and flesh to a dictate from abovethe sense that there’s just one way to be, and that if you’re not, you’re nothing.

Our corporate advertising culture is not only close to a metaphysical system, offering a mercantile account of what is most real in our lives. It embodies a philosophical anthropology and an ethical system as well. In the 20,000 to 40,000 commercials a child sees every year, in the 60 percent more time our children spend in front of televisions than at school, in the fourth of our children under six who have a television in their own room, what is taking place is the formation of the child’s judgment and identity.

It is appropriate that some marketers call this phenomenon branding, for it permanently marks and possibly even scars the little consumers’ view of themselves and their world. The message is inescapable, whether you are shopping at Toys R Us or Abercrombie & Fitch, whether you aspire to slut clothes in imitation of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera or think you cannot live without a Hummer or a Rolexyou are what you consume and wear.

This might be good for an economy that requires continually expanding consumption. Even the 27 million tweens, between the ages of 6 and 14, serve its purpose, with the $20 billion they spend each year and the additional $200 billion in sales they influence.

But there is a social, psychological and moral cost to consumerism’s dream. One can slowly come to believe that everything is marketable and buyable, from identity and acceptance to happiness itself. With that belief as a foundation, it is not a big step to the conclusion that if you want to be real, you yourself must serve as a commodity too. In that case, the corporate dream becomes a personal nightmare. Your very beingyour interior world, your relationships, even your purpose in lifehas itself been consumed by consumerism.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.

Comments

Charles Orloski | 10/17/2003 - 8:02pm
I am especially interested in focusing on J. Kavanugh's troubling statement: "Such are the ways of consumer society; the older generation forming the young first into consumers then into products themselves."

My question is why?

I suggest we got to this point as a result of a series of moral altering steps, the first I believe was legalized casino gambling. For example, I witnessed my otherwise conservative parents pack lunch, get on a bus, and indulge the slots in Atlantic City. The timeframe was early 1980's. I remember praying they'd hit a mild jackpot, insuring a $100.00 tip for myself to buy something.

As an older but not necessarily wiser man, I reflect on how Casino gambling made money a less real object. Just last evening, I viewed the Robert DeNiro film, "Casino." (If anyone is interested, see the hard-hitting ending of this film.) It depicts the opening of a casino's doors, happy Senior Citzens marching inside, oxygen masks, canes, wheel chairs, all items not yet found in Abercombie & Fitch catalogue. The Seniors replaced the fatcats.

Charles Orloski | 10/17/2003 - 8:02pm
I am especially interested in focusing on J. Kavanugh's troubling statement: "Such are the ways of consumer society; the older generation forming the young first into consumers then into products themselves."

My question is why?

I suggest we got to this point as a result of a series of moral altering steps, the first I believe was legalized casino gambling. For example, I witnessed my otherwise conservative parents pack lunch, get on a bus, and indulge the slots in Atlantic City. The timeframe was early 1980's. I remember praying they'd hit a mild jackpot, insuring a $100.00 tip for myself to buy something.

As an older but not necessarily wiser man, I reflect on how Casino gambling made money a less real object. Just last evening, I viewed the Robert DeNiro film, "Casino." (If anyone is interested, see the hard-hitting ending of this film.) It depicts the opening of a casino's doors, happy Senior Citzens marching inside, oxygen masks, canes, wheel chairs, all items not yet found in Abercombie & Fitch catalogue. The Seniors replaced the fatcats.