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Anti-Materialism The Mythology Of Our Time

On the web site for the documentary film Finding Joe, there’s an interview excerpt with Lynne Kaufman. The larger film is about the continuing cultural influence of the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell, and contemplating her own experience of Campbell’s, Kaufman comments:

“You have to know who you really are, that you’re not your job, that you’re not your car, you know, that you’re not the house you live in. There’s an integrity and authenticity in who you are…”

Lynne Kaufman from pat solomon on Vimeo.

The irony is the way that the video introduces Lynne Kaufman. Exactly when she says, “…that you’re not your job…”, a byline appears, reading, “Lynne Kaufman / Playwright”. Right beneath the video, the byline is repeated with an extra note of professional status: “Lynne Kaufman / Award-Winning Playwright”.

I’m confident that Ms. Kaufman is sincere when she states that she believes that her identity is different from her job. Yet, the very video clip that presents this idea is framed with its contradiction. Lynne Kaufman, though she knew Joseph Campbell personally, probably would not have been interviewed for the documentary Finding Joe if she was not professionally successful. In fact, she might not ever have had the opportunity to get to know Joseph Campbell in the first place if it wasn’t for her line of work.

In spite of what Lynne Kaufman believes about herself, her identity is thoroughly integrated with her job. The same is almost certainly true of her car, and her house, and the other physical objects in her life. She chose these objects, after all, because of what she values, who she is, and what she wants to become.

Kaufman’s assertion that material objects don’t matter, even as she lives in the material world, is part of a larger cultural meme of antimaterialism. Assertions that it’s not the material things that matter have become common, but they’re not what they seem to be at first.

Some may say that it’s ironic that calls for the rejection of material goods have increased at the very same time that consumption of material goods has increased. I say that it’s more symptomatic than ironic.

Wasteful, dismissive consumption of material goods is indeed a problem in American culture. I propose, however, that this problem has been inflated by the very antimaterialist rhetoric that claims to combat it.

When we create a division between our material lives and our conscious core identities, we end up losing a purposeful sense of what we should buy, and what we should avoid. We claim that material things don’t matter, and so only look at the directly functional attributes of our purchases, attempting to buy versions of goods that seem simple and practical. This leaves us unsatisfied, however, because we haven’t built up any reaonable alternative. Self-denial creates desperation for satisfaction, and so we rush out to purchase the things that we call “junk”. After all, it turns out, junk does matter.

Because we’ve divided ourselves from material things, we dash back and forth between two distant poles of ascetism and indulgence. In the process, absurdities occur, such as statements that our jobs don’t matter, substantiated by our professional achievements.

A less desperate, imbalanced approach would be to acknowledge the worth of work and of material things. We could admit that we devote ourselves to our jobs, and acknowledge that money matters a great deal as our culture’s symbolic representation of workers’ time and effort. We could stop denying our desire for material goods, and instead try to understand that desire, thus savoring every last bit of material worth in our purchases instead of buying obsessively and then discarding what we buy in purges of guilt.

The deepest meaning, we may find, is in the world, rather than in our failed attempts to transcend it.

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