Essay on the Commodification of Experience

March 6, 2009

I haven’t written on philosophy in a very long time, so if you’re not a fan of slightly meandering (and in this case rather simplistically written – I haven’t really slept for a while) discourse  I suggest you look away now. But as I get (very slightly) older, something has been intriguing me, and that’s the notion of paying for particular experiences.

Now, while that may sound as though the subject of this essay is prostitution, what I’m referring to is the modern practice of paying to experience something that would have initially been done as part of a broader venture. I’m thinking about sky diving. I’m thinking about holidays to Macchu Picchu. I’m thinking about, in essence, paying for adventure and for experiences beyond the norm.

Surely, you might say, this is just an extension of ordinary holidays? It’s not. What it is is revealed by the language used in the advertisement of these experiences; typically this involves phrases like ‘Discover the..’ or ‘A unique adventure’, the ‘unique’ in this case seemingly used in an unironic way. The language used is typically structured to present the image of an opportunity to overcome adversity; even though it is clear that there is no real adversity to be had – that has already been taken away by the pioneers of these ‘unique experiences’. What would Hiram Bingham say if he realised that, a century after his (alleged) rediscovery of Machu Picchu, tourists would be sold the chance to ‘discover’ the city for themselves?

I am going to argue that this sort of activity is (surprisingly) entirely defensible from the standpoint of any existentialist approach which includes a concept of authenticity, and from the standpoint of any concept of one’s relationship with society in the context of an ever-expanding human population. First, a definition.

Authenticity in philosophy is frequently difficult to pin down, and I shall not attempt a precise definition here. It can be broadly described as acting in accordance with one’s inner self, rather than external pressures. Thus, an authentic act is one that is performed with respect to how one wishes to encounter the world rather than how one wishes to be perceived by the world. This is, as is clear, not a moral stance, but rather an experiential one.

It would therefore seem to be the case that the purchasers of adventure are acting inauthentically; in seeking adventure they are not going beyond social convention and setting out into the wild, but rather following a path that has already been laid down. Every single Westerner trudging up the Andes to Machu Picchu is following in the footsteps of Bingham – does that not devalue their experience? Does it not mean that they are living inauthentically by merely acting in accordance with an established means of encountering this experience?

No. The key point here is that it is entirely possible to live authentically in the context of social convention if that is what one seeks to do. This is because if one seeks experience purely for the sake of it becoming one’s own experience in isolation from what has gone before, it does not matter if the path is well-worn – it is unique and authentic to oneself. The distinction is between seeking adventure and seeking to be perceived as an adventurer; not between actually being an adventurer and merely having similar experiences. Travelling to the Lost City of the Incas for the purpose of seeing it and travelling to the lost city in order that one may be the sort of person who talks about travelling to lost cities at dinner parties are two different things, and only one can be labelled authentic.

There will still be some who resist this notion, arguing instead that the contemporary Western lifestyle of selecting from a smorgasboard of purchasable experiences is in some way a betrayal of one’s own authenticity; that in order to be authentic experiences must be won for oneself in a true struggle with adversity. This is to misunderstand the place of the self on a planet shared with six billion other people – there is simply little room for adventure. One cannot seperate one’s adventurous experiences from this basic truth – the authentic life is one that is lived in accordance with one’s inner self in all contexts, not simply when adventuring. And when encountering the world one cannot fail to be limited by it – some external pressures are optional, some are not. One is not living an inauthentic life if one cannot follow through on one’s desire to fly by flapping one’s arms. The authentic life must be lived within physical constraints, and one of those constraints is not the wishes of society, but simply the sheer number of other people.

In a world where many are striving to be authentic, unless one’s inner self leans towards the vicious end of the spectrum, the only way in which one can encounter the world in an authentic manner is to choose to experience in way that permits others to engage in that experience as well. This is almost a Kantian maxim; to experience in such a way that one’s experiences can be repeated by others.

The purchase of experiences permits others to repeat them. Now, while some may still decry this as being inauthentic on their own terms, many choose to follow this while still retaining authentic lives. Authenticity is not the sole province of the intellectual or artistic, but rather the individual who lives one’s life in the way in which they choose. And this may involve moving to the suburbs and going on adventure holidays.

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One Response to “Essay on the Commodification of Experience”

  1. Seems like you are a real pro. Did you study about the theme? lawl

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