Photo from Google Images.

Getting in the Tub: The Challenges & Rewards of Living Beyond Consumerism

Photo from Google Images.

Dust, dirt, and hair. This is what I saw as I stood over and looked into the bathtub in the flat I stayed in on the morning of my first full day in London. I did not have time to waste. I was scheduled to deliver a talk on my research later that afternoon, and was in haste to leave the flat for the day. But, there I stood, paralyzed by a collection of barely noticeable reminders of the human occupant of the flat. I wrinkled my nose and pursed my lips as I contemplated the situation.

My friend Alison once eloquently articulated the reservations I felt at that moment with this statement: “I just don’t like knowing that other people’s butts have been in there.” For some reason, this is a topic of conversation she and I have visited several times. Typically, I have stated that I am not similarly troubled by the history of a tub. I grew up in a household with only one bathroom, so I have a lot of experience in sharing with the bottoms of others. Further, I tend to turn my nose up at what I see as the American trend of harboring irrational fear of coming into contact with the human traces of others, and so often make light of such concerns.

I had to laugh as I stood there, hesitating to clean myself because of a few measly particles of dust, dirt, and hair. I noted that the tub looked freshly cleaned, and that the off-putting particles had merely settled in due to comings and goings, and the breeze from the open window. “You chose this,” I thought to myself. So, I harnessed my pragmatism, found a plastic cup in the kitchen, and rinsed away the dirt. I filled the tub, and climbed in.

Image from Airbnb website.

Later that morning, while riding the tube to the conference at which I would speak, I reflected on my stand-off with the tub. I wasn’t upset that it wasn’t spotlessly clean because I hadn’t expect it to be, really. When I booked my lodging through Airbnb I knew that I would not have the kind of sanitized, corporately structured experience that one hopes to have when staying at a hotel. In keeping with both the material constraints of a fixed budget, and my desire to live a nomadic lifestyle, I purposely eschewed hotels when planning for my travels abroad.

Having had to face the reality of someone else’s bathroom, I realized that when one pays for a room in a hotel, one buys separation from the lives of others. With a hotel experience one gets not only a private, secure room of one’s own, and thus physical distance from others, but also, one achieves social distance too. In a hotel room, save from the standard prohibition on smoking on the premises, there are virtually no rules of behavior one must abide. In fact, one does not even have to clean up after oneself. When you return after being out, the sheets have been changed, the bed is made, the pillows fluffed, the room tidied, and the bathroom sparkles and smells of cleaning solvent. In this situation, you inhabit the role of customer, and because of this, you are always right.

Not so, in the real world. Airbnb recommends that all travelers familiarize themselves with the “6 Golden Rules” of staying in the homes of others. They include: 1. Communicate. Confirm check-in times and key exchanges after booking. 2. Be neighborly. Be respectful of your surroundings, and the neighbors next door. 3. Guests. Your reservation is confirmed for a set number of people. Check with your host before inviting additional visitors. 4. Respect the space. Treat the dwelling as if it were your own home. Whether it is an entire apartment or a private room, be considerate and respectful. 5. Notify. Should any problems arise during your stay, immediately notify your host so they have a chance to correct it. They aren’t psychic (most of them). 6. Review. Leave feedback for your host. They appreciate it and so do we!

All six of these rules come down to the importance of clear and direct communication between the guest and the host. Some of this is transacted through the website, some over email, telephone, or video chat, but much of it occurs in person. This is the inescapable fact of staying in the home of a stranger: getting to know, and dealing with, another human being. There is no veil, no fetish to obscure this experience, and so one is faced with the messiness of social interaction. That mess might take the form traces in a tub, of dirty dishes left on a table, or of the delicate retreat from a conversation that has crept into one’s desired bedtime.

There is also the messiness of negotiating a relationship that bridges the typically distinct realms of business and the personal. When you stay in someone’s home, while a business transaction brokered by Airbnb encapsulates the relationship, it transpires in the realm of the personal. Being in someone’s home after all, is to see a glimpse of their life. Family photos, art, decor, furnishings and possessions, together with observations of a daily routine, habits, and mannerisms provide a snapshot of a life. Unlike a hotel room, which is in some ways like a clean canvas, and closed to observation, staying in another person’s home presents the visitor with a multitude of information and challenges.

While one can sequester oneself away from the outside world in a hotel, and enjoy the privileged position of one-way communication with one’s host–one places orders and lodges requests, but is not impressed upon in the same way–communication, cooperation, and compromise are required when one is a guest in the home of another. One is not free to do whatever one wants. In addition to the golden rules, hosts often have rules of their own that they wish you to abide. And, then there is the self-awareness that comes with inhabiting someone else’s space. I felt self-conscious during the first couple of days of my first Airbnb home-stay. I didn’t feel uncomfortable, but I was conscientiously aware of my footprint in the flat, and the effect that my presence had on my host. This awareness, in turn, shaped my behavior.

A shrine to consumerism in Luzern, Switzerland. Photo by author.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote in his book Consuming Life that we exist within a “society of consumers,” in which has transpired “the annexation and colonization by consumer markets of the space stretching between human individuals.” What he means is that consumerism–as a lens, a set of values, a conceptual framework, and as expected behaviors–fundamentally shapes social interaction between people today, regardless of whether a transfer of goods or services for money is present. He further explains that in a society of consumers we expect that “every choice [will be] secure and every transaction one-off and without obligation, an act with ‘no hidden costs’, ‘nothing more to pay, ever’, ‘no strings attached’, ‘no agent will call’.” In essence, as consumers in a social interaction structured by consumerism, we have the luxury of having nothing more expected from us than monetary payment.

I understand what Bauman means. Consumerism manifests in places one wouldn’t necessarily expect it to. For instance, as an instructor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I taught sociology courses while in graduate school, I often felt that many students saw me as a service sector employee, and viewed their educational opportunity as a consumer transaction. I sensed that some felt that their parents had paid tuition, so in effect, had purchased a degree for them. Thus, I, as an instructor, owed them the service of delivering that degree. They did not realize that what their parents had bought was the opportunity to earn a degree, not the degree itself. For this reason, I found myself one day explaining to a student that I had not “given” him the grade he did not like; rather, he had earned it through his mediocre performance. Structured by consumerism, awareness of one’s personal responsibility for accruing knowledge, of developing skills, and of earning an education, is lost.

Responsibility for ourselves is not all that is lost here. We lose an appreciation for the unique humanity of other people. Now, staying in the home of a stranger is not always puppies and roses. No doubt many of you have heard about the recent very bad incident wherein an Airbnb host returned to find her San Francisco apartment literally destroyed and ransacked, and many important, personal possessions stolen by a less than recommendable guest. Just two stays deep, I have experienced a bit of unpleasant blowback in the form of angry emails from a host who was aghast at my honest review of the cleanliness of his kitchen. But, I have also had fantastic experiences that I would not have had if I had been buffered from the masses by the walls of a hotel.

I was given a tour of the neighborhood and many interesting lessons on the history of London and the British Isles by my host there, and had access to a book of informative walking tours, a couple of which I enjoyed very much. In Geneva, my friend Stefanie and I were welcomed into the home and lives of a lovely, kind, and generous young family who treated us to an incredibly delicious home cooked meal of Senegalese and Liberian food. In both locations, my hosts acted as concierge, cooks, friends, tour guides, and travel agents, so from my point of view, you actually get more for your smaller amount of money than you do at a hotel. I got to know my hosts. We swapped stories about our lives, shared food and drink, and enjoyed each other’s company. We interacted as humans in ways that are vanished by consumerism. I might have been a little uncomfortable at times, but overall, these experiences enriched me, and I am grateful for them.

The Sinister Nostalgia of London

My host was unnerved. His neighbors had been talking loudly outside of his apartment again. He explained to me that there is a “certain class of people” who behave this way. They have loud conversations in public, behave and speak crassly, and they have taken over the public spaces of the city. He supposed the volume of their conversations might be because of cultural differences. In London there are ever increasing numbers of immigrants from beyond the shores of the United Kingdom. It didn’t used to be this way, he told me.

Typical pre-war housing in Islington. Photo by author.

I had known Andrew, my host in London, for only a couple of hours before it was apparent that he appreciates the London of yore more than he does the city today. As we walked around his neighborhood near the Angel area of Islington, he talked at length about the differences between old and new architecture, pointing these out to me as we went. He is fond of buildings that were rebuilt or preserved as they were after the Blitzkrieg of World War II, and disapproves of post-war modern installations. He took pains to point out to me windows, doors, and wrought iron fencing that appeared to be original elements, and talked longingly of what London was like when he first moved to the city over three decades ago.

Antique sport equipment for sale on Portobello Road. Photo by author.

Nostalgia is everywhere in London. Whether a plaque on a building that reports that the site was reconstructed after WWII, the antiques market of Portobello Road in Notting Hill, or the multitude of museums, monuments, buildings, and artifacts that preserve and celebrate the events and people of the past. Such nostalgic displays are certainly not unique to the city–in fact, the commodification of the past and of an aged appearance is all around us in contemporary culture–but it does seem to be central to the presentation of the city to its visitors, and to its image in the mind’s eye of some of those who dwell there.

The main attractions are old with a capital “O,” and mostly linked to the monarchy, past and present. The impetus for my visit to the city was the opportunity to present research at the Royal Geographical Society, which is nestled in the heart of Westminster, and flanked by the Royal Albert Hall, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Kensington Palace and Gardens, and a spectacular monument to Queen Victoria in Hyde Park. One will find Buckingham Palace, seat of the current monarchy, just down the road. I visited Kensington and took in the “Enchanted Palace” exhibit, which showcases the lives of seven princesses who have lived there, the most recent of whom was the late Diana. This exhibit told the stories and celebrated the secrets that encased the daughters of the monarchy throughout time, replete with the riches, romances, and sorrows of London’s most privileged women and girls.

An installation in the “Enchanted Palace” exhibit at Kensington Palace. Photo by author.

Sites like these emphasize the wealth, power, and the deeply entrenched class system that have coursed through Britain’s history and continue to shape its present. I felt uneasy touring the Tower of London, which is actually a large castle, with towers of only modest height, on the banks of the Thames. Walking through the interior and the grounds, I felt it was a mistake to have given money to a place that was historically a seat of wealth, power, domination, and in some cases, torture. I noticed though that these places of royal historical significance also keep alive the myth of a London that exists in a certain telling of the past: it is the noble white man’s, and sometimes woman’s, history of the place. It is this version of London that the nostalgia seems to search for.

It doesn’t take much excavation to see the thinly veiled racism that makes this a sinister nostalgia. While riding “the tube” one late afternoon–London speak for their subway system–I picked up a copy of The Evening Standard, the free daily that is circulated when offices let out for the day. An item about John Cleese on the front page caught my eye. The short article expressed popular rejection and discontent with a statement Cleese made during a recent appearance at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. He reportedly said: “I’m not sure what’s going on in Britain. Let me say this, I don’t know what’s going on in London because London is no longer an English city and that’s how they got the Olympics. They said ‘we’re the most cosmopolitan city on Earth’ but it doesn’t feel English. I had a Californian friend come over two months ago, walk down the King’s Road and say to me ‘well, where are all the English people?’. I love having different cultures around but when the parent culture kind of dissipates you’re left thinking ‘well, what’s going on?’”

Cleese’s comment reveals a resistance to change among the “parent culture,” as he identifies it, or among the dominant middle and upper class, white culture, as seen through my sociological eyes. The conveniences of modernization are of course welcomed by Londoners. No one turns their nose up at technological advances, so long as they do not alter the aesthetic of the city. But the movement of people that comes with technological advancement, and as a consequence of the economic and political relations between London and foreign lands, is not as welcome. Cleese’s statement reminded me of a scene from the web coverage of the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Kate Middleton in April. As a camera crew made its way through the crowds gathered between Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, a middle aged white woman remarked, “It’s nice to just be British.” “British,” in this context, would seem to mean white, and appreciative of a monarchal structure of power, wealth, and class.

Of course, not all Londoners feel this way. I do not mean to suggest as much. Rather, what I wish to point out is a tension in the culture, and the resentment and anger that simmer below the surface, and, on occasion, bubble over to dangerous effect. The protests and riots that recently raked pockets of the city and other points in England offer a prime example of this. Public outrage over the police shooting of Mark Duggan, an unarmed black man, just outside the city seemed to catalyze the poor and working class youth into a collective expression of outrage over the conditions of their lives. On a small island nation, the struggle over resources is hyper-present. Andrew, my host, recounted to me the anger and resentment that builds among working and middle class Londoners when recent immigrants are awarded “social housing,” the British equivalent of American public housing, despite the fact that people often wait up to five years for a flat.

These feelings of discontent structure everyday interactions in the city. One evening while editing photos on my computer in my temporary bedroom, I was shaken out of focus by a man shouting from a window at the children playing in park below. Andrew had told me that children from the neighborhood had been gathering in the park behind the apartment complex. He explained to me that they did not live in the building, that they were “gang members,” and “rough children.” While I had heard them playing, and occasionally swearing at each other, I hadn’t paid them any attention. The seething, violent anger that poured out of the man as he shouted at them did, however, steal my full attention. To be frank, his rage frightened me. He shouted at the children a string of threats constituted mostly of curse words for about five minutes. I had never heard anybody speak to children this way.

Advertisement on the tube. Photo by author.

I suppose the noise from the children is the kind of public “aggression,” or “anti-social behavior,” that Londoners like Andrew and his angry neighbor dislike. They prefer a London of days past, when sweet old couples whispered conversations to each other on the train, so as not to disturb their fellow passengers. Apparently, British social norms cast the eating of crunchy food in public too loud to be considered good behavior, as indicated by this advertisement on the tube. Yet, people are making noise. The kids who lack a space to assemble in their neighborhoods are finding it in others. The children of immigrants and the working class are enjoying their lives and fighting each other with exuberant volume. Those who oppose the social changes these kids represent are just as loud.

Maybe the nostalgia I observed is not just for a London past, but for a time when social conflict was not such an obvious part of everyday life. Gloria Anzaldua wrote of borderlands that they grate against each other where they meet, opening old wounds, creating new ones, and generating conflict. Today’s London is marked by both minor and major confrontations, some with physically violent outcomes, some with structurally violent ones. Like it or not, today’s London does not exist in 1670. As the film of the same name plainly states, “This is England.”

On Philosophy & Practice: Notes from Marx’s Grave

Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery, London.

On Thursday I visited Highgate Cemetery in London to spend some time reflecting on the philosophy of Karl Marx. The celebrated Prussian thinker is buried there; in fact, his is the most visited grave at the site, according to the cemetery guide. I arrived there seeking inspiration, and with the intent of writing about my own philosophy. However, as I stood at his grave, I was overcome with emotion, and with the undeniable urge to appeal to Marx for guidance. So, I did.

Standing at the grave of my sociological hero, I took out a notepad and wrote a letter to Marx. I then tore off the pages, rolled them up, and left them on his tomb. The contents are too personal to share here, but the focus of the letter was the difficulty of marrying one’s practice to one’s philosophical outlook on the world. Marx is known for his attention to this issue. After his death, Italian scholar Antonio Labriola referred to Marxism–the intellectual tradition bequeathed by Marx–as the “philosophy of praxis.” Antonio Gramsci, another Italian intellectual whose theories are a mainstay of contemporary sociology, also used the phrase in his writing, and it has stuck.

Inscription on Marx’s grave, from his “Theses on Feuerbach.”

Calling Marx’s thinking a “philosophy of praxis” seems to refer to the eleventh and final of his “Theses on Feuerbach,” written in 1845 as a critique of the German intellectual tradition. This thesis states: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.” This statement is inscribed on his tomb, and for me, this is his legacy. It builds on his theory of the dialectical nature of the relationship between ideas and the material world. While German philosopher Hegel asserted that ideas are the driving force of all that exists, Marx is known for inverting this notion. Instead, Marx asserted that human action is what makes the world what it is. Ideas inform action, and vice versa, but ultimately it is what we do that matters. In this context, our ideas merely reflect the material world that exists around us. So for Marx, it was paramount that critical ideas be expressed as critical practice. Otherwise, they are meaningless.

In the most basic way, we all match our actions to our thoughts in our everyday lives. We develop ideas and then we act on them. These occasions can be mundane or momentous, whether you realize that you have run out of eggs, and then set off for the store to buy some, or whether you have an existential experience, like when I realized that I would not be fulfilled by a full-time academic appointment, and so changed my lifestyle to allow for the pursuit of different applications of sociology. Hugely significant or marginally consequential, we act on our thoughts everyday.

Yet, simultaneously, we do not, and this disconnect tends to occur around issues that are greatly significant. In her recent book, Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life, Kari Marie Norgaard explains that despite widespread awareness of, and concern for, the devastating effects of climate change in Norway, and the knowledge that changes must be made in everyday life to combat these effects, people continue to engage in practices that facilitate global warming. In essence, they fail to act on their knowledge. While they might espouse a philosophy that decries this man-made crisis, their practice perpetuates it.

Similarly, I found in my study of individual knowledge and consumption of ethical coffee, that there is often a disconnect between awareness and action. For instance, while most consumers with whom I spoke expressed distaste for the corporate domination and predatory business practices of Starbucks, scorned the harmful ecological effects of large-scale coffee production, and assumed that the company practiced exploitative labor relations with producers, many stated that they patronize the establishment when traveling. They explained that because they know the brand, and trust in the consistency of what they will be served, they will go there “in a pinch.” Though those I interviewed, myself, and likely many of you have critical awareness of the negative environmental and social effects of our consumption choices, we tend to focus our action on a certain product or set of products, instead of applying an across-the-board ethical approach to consumption. Our practice does not match our philosophy.

There are many reasons for why this occurs. We experience constraints on how we can use our resources, be they temporal, economic, intellectual, or emotional. We may not always have time to get to the farmers market for our sustainable local produce, or across town to the coffeehouse that sells the coffee that we feel best about buying. Though we may want to buy only products that have a low environmental impact, or that are brought to us by fairly treated and compensated workers, we may not be able to justify the extra dollar or two that one must often shell out for these goods. As some I interviewed about consuming ethical coffee explained, there is only so much time in the day for learning about the issues behind the products. For others, accumulated awareness can be paralyzing. The more one learns about social problems, the more one realizes how connected they are, and how large the scale is on which they operate. Realizing this grandiosity can result in hopelessness, so sometimes, knowledge can actually prevent action.

It is no wonder, then, that for Marx, the connection between ideology and practice was the most fundamental aspect of social life, and in turn, the most troublesome. Through his experience with the workers of the young industries of 19th century, he came to see that people would not fight their exploitation until they realized it. He theorized that development of a critical consciousness was the necessary first step in processes of social change. Yet even with a critical consciousness, practice may not match up.

The pressure of external social forces dampens the potential for critical practice. Dominant ideology, or the common values and worldview held in society, is a major force that shapes what we see and do. Gramsci made this point in his writing in an effort to explain why the workers’ revolution that Marx hoped for never came to pass. He argued that Marx had underestimated the power of ideology to keep people in line with business as usual–he called this “cultural hegemony.” French critical theorist Herbert Marcuse built on this with his concept of “repressive desublimation,” which describes how ideological forces repress–literally push back into us–the critical consciousness that sometimes bubbles to the surface. This “unhappy consciousness,” as he called it, is more easily ignored, or satiated through consumer pleasures, than it is addressed in a meaningful way.

This is all to say that we face a lot of resistance when we attempt to break with the norms of society, whether these attempts are large, small, or perceptible only to ourselves. This is why it can be so hard to make the practice of our everyday lives meet our philosophy head on. Personally, I have never been one to back away from something because it may be difficult, so I will plod along and continue to work toward matching the two. I hope you will do the same. It is not enough to simply think and talk about social change, we must make it through our actions. This is the only way.