The Deaths of Discretionary Spending

I’m very curious about how the structures around us will change as discretionary budgets wither and blow away into the bleak future.

Especially from Paris, where the shelves are still thronged with musky luxuries and one endless fashion week seems to grind into another (there are eight, I think, if you count Couture and Cruise/interseason). Haute Couture, perhaps the most extravagant example of discretionary purchasing, has been very lucratively repurposed as the face and identity of mass market perfumes. Discretionary budgets, like Satan, fulfill infinite desires. When they become undesirable in one place, or one class, they can be rehabillitated and elsewhere positioned.

In France, ‘Tis also the season of campy ads in which French families orgasmically swallow cheap foie gras, pissy champagne, soy-based chocolate products, and a host of other derivative luxury-market excretions. In France, even the lowest, most vulgar and unelaborated discretionary purchase is still, in some way, a delightful—if unintentional—parody of luxurious refinement.

Foodstuff marketing that strays too far from traditional French notions of taste and portion is scorned. Foreigners in France often complain of what they perceive to be the nationalism of French chefs, the latter never having really welcomed “fusion” cooking considering it a kind of occasionally useful pollution. But this kind conservatism has preserved a degree of diversity, of taste recognition, even among very small children, that would be unheard of outside the most privileged coastal families in America. French discretionary spending is more closely bound to traditional ideas of beauty, utility, indulgence, and refinement. One finds traces of these notions in even the lowest gamme products (tea biscuit boxes in France are printed prominently with PURE BUTTER, for example, because the French understand that a reasonable amount of butter is healthier and tastier than a vat of processed vegetable oils). The vulgar, biased French 8pm news covers the haute couture shows the way American stations cover the must-have back-to-school backpack.

The United States has a slightly more extremist approach to marketing to discretionary budgets.

Discretionary income gives us the shape and color of our civilizations. When a Wal*Mart springs up in Grubbyville, Wyoming, it comes with the intention of tapping our discretionary budgets. The strip of paved austerity it builds will eventually accommodate Bed, Bath and Burgers; Wing Wong Dynasty Restaurant; Shop-Rite; etc. and is laid out in a way to encourage our discretionary spending, as well as our means of hauling home the loot. There’s a gas station at each end of the strip so that we can refuel our vehicles (discretionary purchases?), burger and Chinese joints so that we can swallow or daily 5, 000 calories, bank machines and pawn shops, so that, through credit, we can sink beyond indebtedness and into a state of lavish, gaudy poverty. The clothing, appliances, perfumes, and furnishings are scrubbed free of any cultural indicator, as their manufacturers are allergic to confusing regionalisms. The dreadful miracle in all of this conformity is that American home interiors still clash so garishly.

Even Universities and Museums have been shuffled into the randomized deck of discretionary purchases. Luxury brands are exquisitely careful at concealing their massive sales, their massive scale, their reliance on outsourced (read: cheap, Asian) labor, their mechanization, their homogeneity. So-called “luxury groups,” as Dana Thomas has exposed in her fabulous and shocking Deluxe, have become elegant (and higly retouched) portraits of globalization. Years ago they learned to use the couture dress to sell perfume to office girls. Today, they fund contemporary art. Tom Sachs, with his Chanel guillotine and his Prada concentration camp was one of the first to notice the imposture. During the nineties, a too-long cocaine and fossil-fuelled decade during which “journalists” interviewed “supermodels” at “fashion and music award shows,” television viewers in their gloomy, atomized suburban screening chambers, could watch shimmering, pixillated faces explain: “I mean, it’s just natural…fashion and music and art they just …go together…”

A dress and a song and a fish and a painting and an atom bomb have about the same associative logic. Don’t tell that to Vanessa Beecroft, who, when not working with Kanye West or draping naked women over Vuitton trunks is busy, in Wikipedia’s stilted attempt at Gallery-ese, toiling gorgeously at something “neither performance nor documentary, but something in between, and closer to Renaissance painting.” I totally spotted that. In all fairness, her latest work brings attention to the Darfur genocides. Are those panties LaPerla or Wolford, do you think?

American universities have become glamorous, high-walled affairs, straight out of a Margaret Atwood dystopia. The hypertrophied creature-comfort and customer service elements of today’s higher educational institution make my own pampered college years seem like a particularly dusty episode of Little House on the Prairie.

My question is very simple: when your lifestyle and culture, at nearly every level, is best described as a discretionary budget buster, what happens when the budget is cut? I’m interested in how people will remake the world (in very material terms) now that these excessive decades have come to such an ignominious end.

Americans have confused the international conformity of private property for public space. Our discretionary purchases (homogeneous, mass-marketed, credit-fuelled, gas-guzzling, highly caloric, sexually schizophrenic, ephemeral, low-brow, psychotropic) mirror our lifestyles. In America, discretionary purchasing often is lifestyle.

So what will happen to these American landscapes as discretionary budgets shrink or emigrate? What painful mutations will we suffer? Will less mean better? Will it mean less Sarah Palin, less Grandma Havasu Barbie and Lobotomy Caribou Barbie? Will it mean new regionalisms? Will the Big Box stores really be starved out by high transportation costs? How will retail structures be “repurposed”?

Links:

Chanel gilds a roach motel.

Kmart Public Libraries.

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