Bling, Bling You're Dead

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

Not so long ago the middle classes in the world created by British colonialism used to cloak their claim to privilege in the stifling rituals of bourgeois respectability. These days consumerism is increasingly the royal road into the golden circle of authorised superiority. It's a more democratic ideology in the sense that it is less firmly tied to national or ethnic conceptions of culture. A shopping mall in Johannesburg is not very different to a mall in Jakarta or the airport in Dubai. Cars, shoes, watches, handbags, whisky and all the rest have become a genuinely international language.

But of course consumerism is a ruthlessly exclusionary ideology for the simple reason that access to this language requires money and most people don't have much money. And certain forms of presence in the golden circle it enables are predicated on people becoming commodities themselves. Celebrity unhinged from any meaningful concept of achievement is the ultimate expression of this but it is there too in the way in which people manically market themselves as if they were selling celebrity.

Consumer culture may be international but, contrary to the impression created by the way in which some of its commodities are displayed bathed in the golden glow of the sacred object, it is not a transcendent space. The objects that it sells may have been made in sweatshops by children or women kept on the job past the point of exhaustion with cattle prods. Coltan may have been dug by a teenage boy at gunpoint in the midst of the devastation of the Congo. And after Marikana we all know a lot more about where platinum comes from.

But even when the commodity is successfully presented as entirely removed from its origins the world of Johnny Walker Blue and Jimmy Choo is not a transcendent space of pure beauty, sophistication and class. Perverse understandings of race and gender remain part of the grammar of its language. Blond hair, perhaps worn with a half starved body and silicone breasts, retains a particular currency for women as do ridiculously oversized steroid fuelled muscles for men. The celebrity culture is frequently attracted to fixed and wildly exaggerated caricatures of femininity and masculinity that, although they tend to have about as much depth as cardboard cutouts, can only mutilate the tender sense of adolescent self. Oscar Pistorius, like his friend Kenny Kunene, seems to have invested his sense of self in an idea of manhood that is simply cartoonish. There is something more than a little ridiculous about accidentally letting off a shot in a restaurant in Melrose Arch or taking a journalist for a spin in a R3.5 million car at a lunatic speed. In Pistorius's case the weakness that always lies behind the performance of gun toting bluster, a weakness that wants to deny itself by dominating others, has left Reeva Steenkamp battered, shot and dead. She must have lived her last moments, cowering on the marble floor behind the bathroom door, in sheer terror. 

But consumerism is still a terrain on which there can be a sense of renewal,  sanctification and access to the universal. The weight of history can be lightened a little for the simple reason that a person entering a room is judged, at least in part, by what they have. This is part of the reason why consumerism has often, in practice, been assumed to be a central terrain on which we, black and white, can be liberated from the weight of the past. If you have the right stuff and you look the right way a lot of people are going to think that they understand you and to like and respect you.

Before Pistorius was brought into the court in Pretoria, the court that was attracting most media attention in the country was in Durban where Shauwn Mpisane was appearing on a new set of charges. She, with her husband S'bu, had become fabulously and ostentatiously wealthy by building atrociously constructed, and often simply uninhabitable, public housing in Durban. The constant striving for decent housing in the cities has been a feature of popular struggle in South Africa since at least the 1930s and it remains central to popular protest today. But for the Mpisanes, and the politicians and officials that, like John Mchunu, Bheki Cele and Mike Sutcliffe were close to them, all that seemed to count for nothing. In some quarters the Mpisanes were celebrated as if they were the vanguard of a new transcendence of the past even though their fortune had been acquired by resinscribing the exclusion and humiliation that so scarred our past into the concrete reality of contemporary Durban.

It's often noted that consumerism can have particularly perverse consequences in societies where most people don't have much money. Here in South Africa some people have pointed to the skothane craze as a portent of stormy days to come. Elsewhere the riots in London have been seen in some quarters as a response to consumerism by people who are emotionally invested in it but just can't afford to participate in it. But it is often forgotten that one of the dangers of an elite ascent into a culture of ostentatious consumerism is that it can, as in Algeria in the late 1980s and early 1990s, produce a popular backlash in the form of a deeply reactionary politics of piety rooted in the fantasy of a return to a pure form of religion, culture and language. This is understandable in the sense that, unlike consumerism, everyone can access religion, culture and language. But it can be profoundly authoritarian and it usually leaves the most damaging concentrations of power and wealth unchallenged as it focuses on what it sees as moral reform as a personal level.

Although ideas along these lines don't attract media attention in the same way that the skothane craze does they are increasingly prevalent in South Africa. In recent years it has become quite common to hear poor people, especially older people, ascribe their exclusion from society to the moral failings of their communities. In some cases the contempt that politicians display towards ordinary people is even explained in these terms and it is said that people need to become morally worthy in order to win the attentions of politicians. The strategies that are suggested for attaining this worthiness are usually framed in terms of a return to culture but are often, like proposals to police the sexuality of young women more effectively, seriously problematic.

The fate of Reeva Steenkamp has reminded us all that horror does not only lurk in places like Bredasdorp – its there too on the Silverwoods Country Estate. It has shown us all that the national conversation that has started about masculinity needs to be taken seriously and to be translated into action. But it has also shown us something of the limits of the obsession with celebrity and bling and the assumption that life within its golden circle is somehow elevated and more virtuous than life lived elsewhere.

Neither the consumer culture nor its celebrity obsession are going away any time soon. There is a reason why the Daily Mail is the most read website in the world. But if we can't learn to look past it we've got very little chance of getting to grips with the realities that most of us inhabit.

  • Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. This article was published on the South African Civil Society Information Services website.



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