Saturday, February 4, 2012

Having and Being

I've been reading the work of German psychologist, sociologist and philosopher Erich Fromm. In To Have or to Be? (1976), Fromm argues that modern culture is marked by "having," to the exclusion of "being."

In particular, Fromm notes how "Modern consumers may identify themselves by the formula: I am = what I have and what I consume" (23).

I doubt that anyone in the United States today could dispute this observation. I think we'd just suggest he eliminate the word "may."

I witnessed this firsthand when I recently upgraded my cell phone. It had all kinds of fancy apps and options, but the battery ran out at lightning speed the minute you tried to use any of them.

I was advised to turn off all of the latest innovations and, if necessary, put the phone in "airplane mode" to conserve the battery.

With no sense of irony whatsoever, I was told to bear in mind that doing so would mean that I couldn't send or receive calls, but it wouldn't matter since the phone often had trouble connecting to a cell tower anyway.

Meanwhile, my five-year-old flip phone was languishing in a drawer. It worked fine, its battery was fine, and over the years, it had apparently developed a good working relationship with quite a few cell towers.

So I told them to reactivate my old phone, and I sent the new one back.

In short, I actually "downgraded" my cell phone.

Funny thing is, after two weeks of sitting in a drawer without being charged once, it worked fine. I didn't even have to charge it before I could use it again.

What was disturbing to me was how many people on the various discussion boards simply accepted the fact that they had to accept the "upgraded" phone as-is, because they didn't want to switch brands or get another new one.

No one even thought of simply going back to an "old" phone that probably worked just fine.

One consumer wrote, "Well, I guess I'll have to get one phone for work and one for outside of work, since the battery on this one doesn't last long enough. It's not optimal, but I guess it's what I'll have to do."

This is his logic: my one cell phone doesn't work well enough for me to use it in the way that I want, so I'll have to get two.

There is not a doubt in my mind that all of these people had a fully functioning, albeit deactivated, cell phone already in their possession.

And my guess is, their phones probably weren't even as "old" as mine.

As Fromm notes, prior to the First World War, "everything one owned was cherished, taken care of, and used to the very limits of its utility. Buying was 'keep-it' buying" (59).

By contrast, in modern culture today, Fromm observes (and bear in mind, he's writing this in 1976),
Today, consumption is emphasized, not preservation, and buying has become 'throw-away' buying. Whether the object one buys is a car, a dress, a gadget, after using it for some time, one gets tired of it and is eager to dispose of the 'old' and buy the latest model. Acquisition --> transitory having and using --> throwing away (or if possible, profitable exchange for a better model) --> new acquisition, constitutes the vicious circle of consumer-buying... (59)
Who does this mentality ultimately benefit? The very corporations we all denounce for having such a stranglehold on American politics and the economy. What do we do? We blame China or various third-world countries for stealing American jobs and then selling Americans nothing but crap.

Insisting that products would be better made if they were all made in America is beside the point, in some ways. We're not buying to "keep it," we're buying because what we have is "old"--at least according to the corporate marketing we're constantly subjected to.

And we're not even engaging in a "profitable exchange for a better model" anymore.

Would we keep what we have longer, if it lasted longer? I doubt it. The trends and tendencies in contemporary global consumerism suggest otherwise: cars and gadgets and clothing aren't "worn out" anymore, they're just "old" (i.e., last year's model or style or color).

By contrast, Fromm advocates "being" over "having," and argues that modern human society must begin to shift its orientation if it hopes to survive: if we don't, greed and consumption will, for lack of a better word, consume us all.

As Fromm observes, "The mode of being has as its prerequisites independence, freedom, and the presence of critical reason. Its fundamental characteristic is that of being active, not in the sense of outward activity, of busyness, but of inner activity, the productive use of our human powers" (72).

So many of us are outwardly busy, but inwardly inactive. By contrast, Fromm suggests that truly "productive" people "animate whatever they touch. They give birth to their own faculties and bring life to other persons and to things" (75).

In order to do that, though, they have to see "things" for what they are: inanimate objects that are in no way as valuable as human experience itself.

Ultimately, Fromm offers a provocative analogy for considering the distinction between "being" and "having" in an observation about the phenomenon of color.

When light waves come into contact with an object, the color of that object is determined not by the color of the light waves that are absorbed, but by the color of the light waves that are not absorbed.

The quality of color is determined for an object "not for what it possesses but for what it gives out" (72).

The same should hold true for the quality of human life.

Value resides not in possessions and having, but in being--in what we experience and what we give out.

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