Perhaps it is only appropriate that a so-called guidebook to living in modernity is not in fact a book at all, but only a relatively brief overview, encompassing six to nine pages of text, easily condensed for the reader's evaluation into three easy steps. It is short. It can be potentially read and interpreted by a variety of individuals with varying levels of literacy. It is democratic and addresses the reader as part of a collective, but not as someone who is of a particular gender or social or professional hierarchy. It is friendly to those whose attention spans have been shortened by the Internet and the mass media, yet it also creates a program that is inspirational in nature, to the reader's sense of improving the self. It wishes the reader to become a better self, just like everyone else in the world, that is, in America.
Who are we now, we (post) moderns?
We live, it has been said, in the post-modern age, a world that has seen both the triumph of the French Revolution's over-valuation of individual rights and desires and the Industrial Revolution's impressive creation of a mechanized, homogenized society that has enabled the middle-class to have unprecedented stretches of leisure time and comfort as well as to dwell in an increasingly socially isolated and fragmented world. How to proceed through these treacherous and contradictory cultural waters that have buffeted the modern consciousness from 1850 to the present day?
The Self as a social process under construction
Even this idea of perfecting the self, of perfecting all selves and not just the selves of the upper classes, is a highly culturally and historically located ideal. The idea of the middle-class self as existing outside of culture, as something unique and individually valuable, spawned in the Romantic Era, would not have been possible without the French Revolution's attempted ideological (though not actual and lasting) abolishment of pre-existing social classes and the privilege of birth as integral constituents of the self.
It is tempting to view today's world as entirely lacking in social norms and constraints upon the self, that individuals are 'free.' (Charon, 2000). However, with the freedom from old social structures came a new social convention, the idea that one must construct one's self from whole cloth, or that the self may be created like a custom-designed yet pre-manufactured commodity.
In the modern media in particular, one is increasingly bombarded with messages that one must find one's true self -- through purchasing one's self. Perhaps one of the most interesting manifestations of this may be found in the show "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." This show which helps men find their 'true selves' -- through buying more items and discarding what they have kept with them through most of their lives. The idea that sexuality is a natural, biological attribute is also reaffirmed in the show, as it is assumed that somehow gay men have a naturally better eye for style and for dress, as if sexual orientation gives one a privilege in finding the self through marking the self a conglomeration of commodities, as if sexual orientation and is corresponding 'markers' were not highly coded and culturally constructed themselves -- how does, one might be apt to challenge the show's central premise, one become 'genetically predisposed' to liking Prada over the Gap?
Juliet Schor suggests that the American fixation upon spending is like an addiction. The more one buys, the more one covets what one cannot afford, what one sees others buying. "Competitive acquisition has long been an American institution," she notes, as reflective of our more socially unstable social structure than Europe's hereditary-based societies. But as consumption becomes more important in defining an identity, however, regardless of income, Schor notes that "when a reference group includes people who pull down six or even seven-figure incomes, that's trouble. When poet-waiters earning $18,000 a year, teachers earning $30,000, and editors and publishers earning six-figure incomes all aspire to be part of one urban literary referent group, which exerts pressure to drink the same brand of bottled water and wine, wear similar urban literary clothes, and appoint apartments with urban literary furniture, those at the lower economic end of the reference group find themselves in an untenable situation. Even if we choose not to emulate those who spend ostentatiously, consumer aspirations can be a serious reach." (Schor, 1998) What if one loses one's status as a reader, for instance, if one cannot afford a latte at Starbucks?
Rule 1 for living in modernity: Perhaps the first rule for living in modernity, therefore, is to disdain the self as a creation through purchase and branding, through the hyper-consumptive philosophy that one is what one buys, and accept the self as a constant negotiation through societal waters and through personal history, but something that cannot be fixated nor branded, regardless of one's salary. This means that one must reject Schor's contention, incidentally that it is not so bad if individuals making the same salary socially compete, as even this is a kind of branding, even if it is not financially depleting to the competitors -- it is spiritually and socially depleting.
Globalization and the McDonaldization of the World
One of the reasons that individuals and cultures as a whole seek to construct selves through consumerism is that the traditional norms and values that come within traditionally enclosed cultures have been laid bare through the process of globalization and modernization. The definitions of the self as they once existed, in terms of religion, family, and country have become broken down through intermarriage, exposure to other cultures, and wider-spread travel across the globe. It is easier, through standardization, to purchase a pre-fabricated identity, yet it is harder to find a singular identity to enclose one's self, as one is exposed to more and more influences.
Perhaps no better brand or image better represents this than McDonalds. McDonalds began, quite innocently, as a small chain of restaurants founded by Ray Kroc. By ensuring that patrons could always have the same food, wherever they traveled, provided they could see the golden arches from where they stood, Ray Kroc brought the comforts of driving a Ford Automobile to food. Henry Ford once said that one could have any car, provided it was black. Ray Kroc similarly created a family friendly name and brand. (Scholsser, 2002)
Yet McDonalds has come to stand for all that is evil in American culture, as French farmers destroy these supposed temples to American grease and standardization. Ancient cultural recipes and rhythms to the land and food have been lost to American standardization and 'rational' (but not healthy) food. It could be argued that French food's expense and time-consuming labor was hardly democratic or liberating to those who prepare it. Yet the idea of a cheap and easy to purchase standardized access to something so 'American' is attractive and threatening to foreigners around the world, as McDonald's stretches out its grasp to franchise all nations. McDonald's, as famously noted in an exchange in a popular film called "Pulp Fiction," does vary its offerings slightly from place to place, depending on regional tastes -- such as beer (and mayonnaise for fries) in French McDonalds, and vegetarian burgers in India. But it is always the same, always branded the same. By buying McDonalds, one buys America, and as long as one has the money, anyone can buy a part of America.
Of course, the rejection of the McDonald's high-fat lifestyle has also become another, contrary form of standardized identity. As many walked through the arches to literally taste a bite of America in the then-Soviet Union's first opening of the franchise, at home some Americans attempted to work out, to eat healthfully, and to construct physical shapes that also proclaimed their membership in a particular economic and social class. The body, in the absence of older labels of hierarchy and status, provided yet another form of wearing or branding one's self. McDonald's in America might now be seen as middle or lower class, and comfort food for the ordinary. But prefabricated brands of low-calorie cuisine and bottled water offered by other chains created yet another form of American identity in modernity, provided one had the ability to pay for it, and also the ability to work out in a relatively safe, transportation accessible environment. As George Ritzer notes in The McDonaldization of Society, even the Body Shop's Shea Butter is just as much the creation of a standardized brand product, just as much the purchase of an identity as the famed Big Mac, even if the Body Shop says it is environmentally friendly. (Ritzer, 2000, p.3)
McDonaldization's relationship to rationalization
The difference between the construction of the body through yoga and hemp hand lotion as an instrument of identity and eating McDonalds cheeseburgers when on vacation in Paris perhaps differs only in terms of how chooses to label one's identity through choice…