Maya Seligman
Swarthmore College
English 95: Fictions of Consumption
Prof. Lisa Cohen
March 18, 1997

Shopping Journal #7

The last two weeks have been very interesting to me. I spent my spring break in Cuba, which gave me the opportunity to see a much different world of consumerism. There are many issues I could address for this shopping journal (that I hope to someday write about more), but I'll focus on my experience in the open buyer's market of Havana -- a place where Cuban artisans can legally sell their arts & crafts and other goods. While this type of market was illegal only several years ago (considered the "black market"), it is now a thriving scene filled with many people from morning to evening. Located in a central part of the city, the market is outside, in an open square surrounded by the beautiful architecture of La Catedral de San Cristóbal de La Habana and other buildings, extending down the connecting narrow streets. Used books are in one section, while local painters set up their art on another side of the plaza; tables of jewelry, black coral carvings, wooden sculptures, clothing, cigar boxes, domino sets and all sorts of crafts are sold throughout the market.

In some ways, I really support the whole idea of the market, for it is finally a chance for Cubans to independently tap into the tourist market in order to make money, separate from any state organizations. OB Yet when I was there, walking around, I felt a flood of negative feelings. At first I didn't really know why. Then I realized that it was because I felt immediately cast into a set role of White Tourist with Dollars, which put me on the defensive. The market seems to be catered to the visiting foreigner who wants a material representation of Cuba -- I saw people all around me shelling out their dollar bills for the cheesiest commodities. The setting seemed to lock everyone in the expected roles (either The Cuban/Seller or The Visitor/Buyer), defining the relationship between the two by the actions of selling and buying. I felt like I couldn't really relate to any local Cubans in a human way since I was being viewed as an objectified outsider, a buyer with American dollars in my pocket. Perhaps I was merely projecting my own perceptions, responsible for locking myself into a self-created part; in truth, I have no idea how the Cuban craftspeople were assessing me.

I ended up buying a number of things, negotiating fiercely for all of them: a small canvas painting of Ché, three black coral charms, a coral/silver bracelet, an amber ornament, three books, a shirt, some postcards and five boxes of quality cigars. Some of the interactions were actually quite wonderful once I got past the initial barriers of our language differences and my defensive bargaining attitude. Cuba showed me that the whole system of Western consumerism is not a standard reality for everyone, giving me a much different taste of shopping.

* * *

Reactions to Rachel Bowlby's 7th chapter ("Make up your mind") of Shopping with Freud: I liked reading "Scene 3," about the salespeople's four stories: the priest, the judge, the soldier and the lover. Yet I also wish she would have elaborated more on each one, for they kind of left me hanging, wanting more examples and explanation. The Kitson quote on religious conversion totally reminds me of a scene in David Byrne's movie, True Stories, when an evangelist preaches about consumerism in his sermon, eventually breaking out in a dramatic song with backup from the gospel choir. They are selling various commodities. Here are some of the lyrics:

"Now I am the gun
And you are the bullet
I got the power and glory!
And the money to buy it!

Got your Gulf and Western and your MasterCard
(Puzzling Evidence)
Got what you wanted, lost what you had
(Puzzling Evidence)"

Isn't that appropriate? Kitson writes that the seller can look at the methods used by an evangelist to sell religion, which begins by "showing the prospective convert (buyer) how great a lack there is in his life" (Bowlby, 103). This idea corresponds to the last line in the quote above from "Puzzling Evidence," as the church-goers sing about losing what you once owned.

On another topic, I am struck with the erotic undertones of the material in Scene 6. Bowlby discusses the post-purchase relationship between buyer and seller on page 110, explaining the addictive quality of needing further "consummatory" satisfaction. The whole description seems to be a metaphor for sex; the actual "climactic moments" of the purchase are clearly analogous to orgasms.

p.s. When searching for the lyrics to "Puzzling Evidence," I found this Talking Heads song, which is also relevant, filled with references to materialism:


I was born in a house with the television always on
Guess I grew up too fast
And I forgot my name
We're in cities at night and we got time on our hands.
So leave the driving to us.
And it's the real thing.

And you're rolling
In the blender
With me.
And I can love you
Like a color

Now love is here
C'mon and try it
I got love for sale
Got love for sale
And now love is here
C'mon and try it
Got love for sale,
Got love for sale.

You can put your lipstick all over my designer jeans.
I'll be a video for you.
If you turn my dial.
You can cash my check if you go down to the bank
You get two for one
For a limited time.

Push my button...
The toast pops up
Love and money
Gettin' all
Mixed up

And now love is here
C'mon and try it.
I got love for sale
Got love for sale

Love is here
C'mon and try it
I got love for sale
I got Love

consumption | writings | main page

other shopping journals:
[ #1 | #2 | #4 | #5 | #8 | #9 | #10 | #11 | #12 ]