Performing Magic, Bought in Products?

For all the complaints about our dull lives, we still find a lot of magic – in the marketing of products. What about active living and exploratory lifestyles, though?

snappy-dresserAs I stand here, in blazer and pants made of a softshell material, promising comfort and a cool look, performance and a certain classiness, writing on a shiny notebook delivering great performance in a thin chassis, I am only too well aware that this is something of a performance.

Even if it is just for myself, it is an attempt at projecting a certain image and taking on its attributes. It’s close to notions of sympathetic magic, only that it’s not a voodoo doll being poked, it’s me myself being dressed up for work.

We do these kinds of things, rooted in magical thinking, a lot.

Objects of various kinds have long held a fascination and (supposed) power.

There is little in gold per se, for example, to make it valuable, but the ease with which it can be formed into objects, the shine it gets when polished, and the little it reacts with other substances. These its characteristics, though, have made this shiny, heavy, and rather useless metal as special as it is to us.

Magical and religious objects of various kinds are to be found in most cultures and societies, too. If you didn’t know what they were, they’d be meaningless to you. To the believer, however, they can hold great power.

Technology has famously been said to be indistinguishable from magic, if only sufficiently advanced, as well. You slide and pinch over a screen, and it reacts to your touch.

Since the advent of the consumer society and the marketing for its products, these tendencies of ours have become used to daze the primitives and peasants – us – in pretty subtle ways.

Not so much shocks and awes us anymore, outside of the indiscriminate use of overwhelming force being brought to bear on us rather than being deployed/employed only among some others far away. Only too much technology is too widely available and known, we feel a bit too educated or at least well-informed and world-wise to fall for trickery.

But then, there’s the next advertisement for the next product promising action, fun, an end to boredom, success with the (opposite or not) sex we’re interested in, successful living, happy families, better homes, pleasurable rides on empty roads, maybe even dazzling wit and charisma or enchanting beauty and eternal youth.

Some of it may even work, one way or another. Good tools along with the proper skill in their use do make for more competent work. Different ways of dressing do make one feel differently and give different impressions. Certain products have a certain cachet and portray certain social classes and groups to which their owner/user/wearer does, or wants to, belong.

It all has well-recognized and oft-criticized downsides such as when teenagers feel the need to have certain brand items in order to belong and not be made fun of, and parents feel the pressure to buy them even as money is tight.

Another, related, pattern is less well recognized, though: The glut of products all trying to attract us by quasi-magical promises holds us in its sway so strongly, we forget that the real magic of life is in the living, in the attention given to activities and the awareness of experiences.

“The desire to consume is a kind of lust. We long to have the world flow through us like air or food. We are thirsty and hungry for something that can only be carried inside bodies. But consumer goods merely bait this lust, they do not satisfy it. The consumer of commodities is invited to a meal without passion, a consumption that leads to neither satiation nor fire. He is a stranger seduced into feeding on the drippings of someone else’s capital without benefit of its inner nourishment, and he is hungry at the end of the meal, depressed and weary as we all feel when lust has dragged us from the house and led us to nothing.”
Lewis Hyde, “The Gift”

We need some tools and we like our ‘toys’, but even their value does not come in the mere purchase and possession, but only in the proper and skillful use. We may well want to mark accomplishments and project personality by way of  physical objects we have and are seen as having, but just stuffing our places (and then, storage spaces) full of memorabilia and still falling for the next new thing isn’t going to make for great memories to define our life stories through, let alone satisfy the desire to be someone.

This, we can only achieve by becoming more aware of our overdependence on outside things, the careful use of consumption and creation of cues to tell us who we are and what we want to be, and the habit of getting to action:

You are not a runner by having running equipment, but by running. You have to go out and do it.

You are not a photographer by virtue of a camera, let alone a better photographer thanks to a better camera, if all you do is have the equipment but not the skill – and the skill, including an eye for interesting shots, is built only in the practice.

You will not cook better thanks to more kitchen gadgets or even more cookbooks, but only by time spent in the kitchen.

No amount of stuff, nor of good thoughts, will make you successful, let alone content. Caught up in the magic of products, the gleam and glitter that the latest gadget promises, the need for just the right equipment – and the purchase of the next pre-packaged experience – to make us feel and do good, we chase after the money to get it all. In the process, we don’t even manage to make the time for that which we want to do, become, and be.

Only your active doing, your ever-better performance of skillful living, however, can make you content, happy, living better with fun and memorable experiences, learning and true growth. Applying product magic where appropriate, and avoiding it in the ever-more instances where that is necessary.

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