Kids sitting restless under an evergreen tree as a parent decides who gets to open the next box – the scene is so familiar that it hardly registers. But in this image, we can find a mirror reflecting the ways we are forced to organize our affection for each other exclusively around purchases, and the strain this puts on all of us.
At a certain time of the year for millions of Westerners, the Christmas tree organizes the family. We sit around it without a thought, and engage in a sometimes loving, sometimes strained practice of expressing our affection for each other. This time together centers on the objects we buy for each other, and the Christmas tree itself is something that has to be bought and hauled back from the market.
The Christmas tree justifies families sitting and sharing time together – when else do we do this spontaneously? It serves as a pretext for loved ones to try to put down their petty issues with each other and be good to each other for a moment – when else do we make this happen?
But under the Christmas tree, this ritual is mediated by things we have purchased. And the resulting affection is tainted with a problem. Our affection isn’t expressed by thoughtfulness or care that might happen with making gifts or spending quality time together, but by a simple adding up of the probable cost of each gift received. “How much does my daddy love me?” an adolescent thinks, and after quick calculation decides, “$100 worth.”
In his essay titled “The Mass Ornament,” Siegfried Kracauer argued that the surface expressions – the most mindless parts of a culture – provide direct access into the state of a culture, in a way that the culture’s commentary on itself can’t. Following this logic, he looked at a group of dancers called the Tiller Girls, a famous troupe from America at the time of his writing in the 1930s.
In this spectacle, Kracauer uncovered the ways that this highly disciplined group, producing large, often aerially-viewable dance formations, resemble the individual factory workers in 1930s society – contributing to a higher order that, because of their repetitive labor on a small part of it, they cannot see. “The structure of [the Tiller Girls’ performance],” Kracauer explains,
reflects that of the entire contemporary situation … Everyone does his or her task on the conveyor belt, performing a partial function without grasping the totality. Like the pattern in the stadium, the organization stands above the masses, a monstrous figure … It is conceived according to rational principles which the [extreme efficiency of management sciences] merely pushes to their ultimate conclusion. The hands in the factory correspond to the legs of the Tiller Girls.
So what does the sitting under the Christmas tree reflect in our current society?
We sit under it, letting the things we buy organize the space in which we express affection for our family and close friends. The evergreen has had its traditional significance stripped entirely of any meaning over the course of time. It now only provides the spatial anchor for what used to be ritual of care and affection, but what has more and more become dominated by the ritual of consumption.
A recent article in Good Magazine pointed out the unsustainable nature of growing and throwing away millions of Christmas trees a year, and suggested some DIY alternatives to them. Many consumers will find the article stupid – why can’t we just go and buy a Christmas tree and not overanalyze everything for once?
But following Kracauer, we can use this image to see our own situation that much more clearly. Just as the Christmas tree mediates and organizes our time together with our family, products have come to mediate all our interactions with each other. From restaurants to bars, from sporting events to films, there’s hardly any public space left for those of us who want to get together outside of home and enjoy each other’s company without having to buy something.
That purchase then puts strains on our relationships that weren’t there to begin with – Did he buy me enough? Did I spend enough tonight or should I buy more so I don’t look cheap? And of course, the cost of always spending in order to relate to people is that we have to devote more and more of our productive energy to working to pay the bill – and leave less energy for our relationships.
There is no conspiracy of “higher powers” here. The market just exhausts us through working too much, and then suggests that we let the market solve the problem of providing the means to tradition, rather than coming up with it ourselves. And why not? How many of us would actually consider making any of the alternative Christmas trees presented in the Good article? How many of us have the energy?
We live in an age where countless lonely people will leave their homes after dinner this Christmas and rush off to bars, where they will buy drinks and converse with friends and strangers under the mediating shadow of consumption. We live in an age where parents are encouraged to buy their children toys once a year to make up for all the days they’ve come home too exhausted from work to engage with them properly.
We live in an age where to sit at a table outside of a restaurant that has closed, or to walk around a shopping mall without buying anything, risks prompting a police officer or security guard telling you to leave or be charged with loitering. The message everywhere is clear: you are only out in order to buy things. To not purchase something constitutes a subversive act.
As we’ve seen with Occupy Wall Street, the means of our oppression by the status quo are impressively subtle. But once confronted and challenged head-on, they will always bare their teeth.