Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Toy Story Or, A Tiger Woods Action Figure for Christmas

Last winter, just in time for Christmas, I heard (or, more likely, read) that one result of the media fallout surrounding the Tiger Woods infidelity scandal was that Tiger Woods Action Figures were littering clearance bins all across America and could be had for half-price or less. 

This struck me as odd and a bit funny. What exactly is the connection between a toy action figure and virtue?  Obviously, the main concern probably isn't that little Johnny is going to drag out his Las Vegas Cocktail Waitress Action Figure and begin reenacting thirty-one months of suggestive text messages and slightly panicked voice mails. And at the same time, we all realize that, unless children have changed a lot in the years since I played with action figures (and I'll be the first to admit that they have), it is almost inevitable that there will eventually be some playfully and childishly naughty exchange between this toy-Tiger and a Barbie (or Ken) doll, and that it may or may not be preceded by an officially sanctioned play-marriage ceremony.  Let's face it: more likely than not, at some point in their little toy-lives, dolls are unceremoniously stripped, clinically scrutinized, and innocently shoved head-first into a sandbox in positions that no double-jointed adult film star could ever hope to replicate.  So what is it that we're trying to register culturally and collectively when we link the supposed virtues (or vices) of a flesh-and-blood human being to the market-value of a toy, and devalue the latter based on the actions of the former? 

So this got me thinking... Can morality and economics be linked?  Should they?  Are they?  In the bad old days of imperialism, they were, and shamelessly so: "Hi, we're white and you're not, and you're here but we're not, so we're going to fix this by exploiting you and then teaching you how to thank us for it.  If for some reason you don't feel appropriately grateful, we'll just chalk it up to the fact that you're not white and beat the shit out of you."

I'm working on Defoe's novel, Moll Flanders (1722).  With this novel, the title-page says it all: it's the story, of a lovely lady, who was born in Newgate Prison and "was Twelve Year a whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia," but who "at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent."  Needless to say, it's a fun read.

Moll learns early on that virtue is most useful when it can be bartered, bought and sold: seduced by the eldest son of the rich benefactress who takes her in, Moll retrospectively blames herself for her own vanity and stupidity--she should have learned the art of the deal and made a better bargain for herself.  When the man tells her he loves her and then pays her afterward, she (as she now realizes, foolishly) focuses on all of the sweet nothings that he says rather than insisting that he put his money where his mouth is (to put it rather bluntly) and offer to marry her.  

Moll operates within a mercantile economy, a zero-sum game in which my gain is always your loss.  If I get a bigger piece of the pie, you'll be getting a smaller one, and that's simply too bad for you.  This has interesting consequences for thinking about morality: in essence, the Calvinists argue that the fact that I'm getting a bigger piece of the pie may mean that God likes me better and hence that I'm a better person.  I can't ever know that for certain, though, so I need to keep accumulating pie (or whatever) and try not to gloat because God hates that and if he gets upset, he'll cut off my pie-supply entirely.

Defoe is so interesting to me, because he's a Puritan writing and living on the cusp of an economic shift from a mercantile system, in which gains and losses are very clearly registered, to a capitalist system of exchange in which the illusion of transparent financial operations covers some very complex and sometimes rather shady exchanges--as we Americans all learned in the fall of 2008, and as Defoe himself saw in the scandal of the South Sea Bubble, which occurred shortly before he wrote the novel.  In a capitalist system, profit and loss go beyond the columns and margins recorded on today's balance-sheet: we speculate on future profits by forecasting a positive outcome.  In essence, we tell ourselves-- or are told-- a story about how it will all end really, really well for us.  Under capitalism, I can be convinced to take a smaller piece of the pie today, to give away my piece, or to give away the whole pie, if I'm willing to believe that tomorrow, I will have two pies (and possibly some cake too).

Unless, of course, tomorrow comes and there's no pie after all.  Negative outcomes are a story no one wants to read, hear or tell.  In mercantilism, these outcomes are represented alongside of the positives--they are part of the system.  In capitalism, stories about future gains trump present-day, negative realities.  In short, with capitalism, fiction rules.

Which brings me back to the bargain-bin action figure.  In the eyes of his financial backers and the general public who "bought" the marketed image, the story of Tiger Woods' success didn't turn out as planned.  His money, talent, image, and persona--everything about "him"--was premised on a cultural assumption of moral virtue.  If we didn't value the assumption of monogamy, for example, Tiger and his action figure would not have lost market-value.  More interesting--and something Moll Flanders could have taught him--is the fact that a well-managed fall from virtue can generate profit in a capitalist economy in ways that it simply can't in a mercantile economy.  Tiger's loss could be Tiger's gain, if he only knew how to tell us all a good story.

What I'm still sorting out is the question of what exactly it is that we lose--or that we think that we lose--if the story of an individual's alleged virtue and cultural status changes from what we were led to expect.

The more I think about this, the more I think I need to go back and reread Karl Marx's Capital...

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."