Our perfected separation: Americans cultivate dangerous reliance on material objects


Liam Frith photographed by Isabella Kneeshaw.

Liam Frith, Staff Writer

Nothing is better at blurring the line between life and representation, between happiness and complacency, and strengthening the perceived difference between us and them, than our reliance on ever increasingly trivial commodities and spectacles. 

The culture that propels this obfuscation of reality has created a U.S. mediated not by people, but by things, a fact that goes against our innately human-centered and cooperative behavior. Our failures to act on pressing – sometimes existential –  problems, arise out of this shallow, distracted and entirely manufactured culture. We have become increasingly alienated from each other, from the world and from our own humanity through this acceptance of artificial want and expectation and its subsequent delivery of meaningless gain.

In philosopher Guy Debord’s 1967 book Society Of The Spectacle, the beginnings of this claim’s substantiation can be found. In Debord’s opening chapter fittingly titled “Separation Perfected,” he cites the first effect of our material obsession as being the way in which it, “…obliterates the boundaries between self and world….” It’s hardly difficult to find examples of this within our lives, a glaring one being the way in which our commodities appear as objects void of human manipulation, as mystical entities that suddenly appear on a store counter. We are detached from the process of production, from the sometimes horrific exploitation felt by the worker on the other end of exchange and from the possibly negative effects the industry responsible for the commodity had on the environment in the process of its creation.

These things represent what Debord calls a “…concrete inversion of life…” and are what have allowed for many Americans to be so seperated from eachother and the world that they don’t believe in a climate disaster threatening us all, with another large portion beliving that to act on stopping the disaster would not be worth it considering the inevitably detrimental effects ending climate change will have on corporate profits and traditional structure.

Social critics Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky take a related but somewhat different angle on U.S. citizens’ ignorance about such issues within their 2002 revision of acclaimed media critical book Manufacturing Consent. They explain, “The steady advance, and cultural power, of marketing and advertising has caused ‘the displacement of a political public sphere by a depoliticized consumer culture.’”

As they say in the revision, we are taught to not challenge things through our consumption. Our attention spans become limited, our critical thoughts disrupted. We grow complacent and progressively unsatisfied. We quite literally become commodities ourselves, all at the hands of increasingly centralized and powerful industry whose effects, intentional or not, have become the driver and fixture of our societal consciousness. Author Umberto Eco goes as far in his 2012 essay Censorship and Silence to compare rampant consumerism to his childhood in Mussolini’s Italy. He explains that we experience “censorship through noise,” where people are forced to “avoid focusing on what is really important.” This noise ensures greater difficulty in changing our society.

As overwhelming the effects of this monolithic culture might seem, the human spirit surely can withstand the inhuman encroachment of consumerism. We have to take the first step of recognizing we exist in a society run by image, by the few and by the inanimate to start the process of change. Creating quiet from the noise censoring this core acknowledgment of our world will point us in a positive direction, ensuring a path to a society mediated by people, by compassion, by kindness and by sustainability. 

To quote Eco’s end of the aforementioned essay, “I invite you to consider, therefore, not words but silence.”