Bell Daniel The Cultural Contradictions essay

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Mass production and mass advertising "by the creation of new wants and new means of gratifying those wants" renders individuals complacent and dependent upon 'the system' of production and they are made to feel that their purchase of the next new prefabricated product is a radical act of individualism (34).

The "official, ceaseless searching for a new sensibility" that is at the heart of the restless spirit of modernism, commercials counsel us, can now be treated by buying the latest device (34). Bell envisions a future where inflation, bigger government, and a sense of entitlement produced by the capitalist emphasis on gratification, will only lead to more and more unhappiness and more and more consumption and more dependence upon faceless entities.

It is hard to read Bell's words and not wonder how modern, global capitalism relates to his thesis. The Internet has been a boon to marketers, and seems on its surface sublimely anti-rational in spirit and creative. It is based upon the hypertext, the hyperlink, movement outside of space, it allows people to individually 'blog' their lives and for users to create their own individual webpages. Yet even though it might seem to be anti-rational and democratic to use the Internet requires the purchase of material goods and ties the user to a materialist system.

The counterculture of the 1960s that condemned capitalism has been effectively manufactured in our own era into a commodity, sold in the form of tie-dye shirts and Ben & Jerry's flavored ice cream.

This is what Bell means when he says that "There exists only a desire for the new -- or boredom with the old and the new" and that this spells a dangerous end to any real critique from the elements Bell calls 'culture' (53). Teens can buy a lava lamp today, to embrace the supposed counter-cultural 1960s, a lamp just like every other lava lamp. This highlights the weakness of the previous countercultural critique, which Bell felt really never provided an alternative to capitalism that was spiritually meaningful.

Technology, which seems like the most innovative aspect of capitalism, in its ability to shrink the world and provide goods to people living all over the world, has generated system of mass production and today technology is itself disposable. Unlike the inventors of the past, today, writes Bell, "the nature of change in the techno-economic order" is "linear" because it must be based upon the principles of utility, efficiency, and profit generation (165). Corporations provide clear rules for innovation, for the technological commodity must encourage displacement, and substitution of the old. Thus even technological creativity must hold to a certain prefabricated standard (165). The new iPhone displaces older phones, and once everyone has an iPod, a new form of 'must have' technology must be created, so people will want to buy it to keep connected to all of their friends.

Every society seeks to establish a set of meanings through which people can relate themselves to the world. These meanings specify a set of purposes or, like myth and ritual, explain the character of shared experiences, or deal with the transformations of nature through human powers of magic or techne. These meanings are embodied in religion, in culture, and in work" (146). Now such meanings are based in material values, not the sacred, even though ironically capitalism began as an inspiration of the sacred in Protestantism and the rejection of Catholic dogma. As a solution, Bell envisions, in the post-modern void of meaning, a return to an older order and faith. Faith itself must not be allowed to become a commodity, and be subsumed by the self-help industry, itself a product of capitalism that provides a kind of standardized enlightenment towards all.

Capitalism has become a force of its own in a way that the Puritans could never have anticipated. Rather than being fueled by entrepreneurs, the individuals of the past have become names of company like 'Ford.' But it is possible to escape from the moral vacuum created by homogenization, through a real and profound cultural critique on the parts of intellectuals and ordinary citizens. Bell ends his book with a call to arms against the bureaucracy of either the left or the right, and a return to the fundamental values, be believes, makes us human and provides a foundation for a real culture of the sacred, of the arts, of…[continue]

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