The man next to me has a pint glass of water, a biro and an Argos catalogue. He is bent over the catalogue circling pictures of watches. At first I assume he must be picking out a few examples in order to come back and compare them all later. But he leafs through the watches section and finds his way to gardening tools, where he circles forks and trowels. His concentration is considerable and from time to time he sips the water quickly without looking at the glass. I notice that the barman doesn’t seem too pleased with him. Probably because he’s not drinking a proper drink. The man finishes with trowels and moves on to the hi fi section, in which he proceeds to circle a number of compact stereo systems. He doesn’t study them for long, preferring to scan them then firmly mark them. Each time I look up from my book he has moved to a new section and continues to circle and to circle.
The man seems very methodical and efficient. Were he to select and purchase one item from each of the sections to which he had attended, his outlay would be considerable. The state of his clothes, however, does not suggest that he has access to significant outlay. His cuffs are frayed, his glasses are secured with tape, his shoes are laceless. But he has a project.
He has, perhaps, mastered the art of inner shopping, accessed the pleasures of virtual purchase. Perhaps he is able to imagine what it would be like to have things, to imagine this having in such detail that, with the end of reverie comes satiety: I dreamed of having it and I fantasised the pleasure pursuant on the getting and then I was over it. I say ‘I’ because I can do this. I can browse attractive items in magazines designed to make me yearn but the yearning does no more than smoulder, it remains platonic. I enjoy the attractive thing in my head. I have to say I think this is rather clever. Not to mention being possessed of a timely frugality.
The man in the pub probably has not had the opportunity to develop such a privileged enervation. It may be that he has not enjoyed the consumptive possibilities of the capitalist play area. He has not gone the whole way without protection. When I take my yearning for a walk I am fortunate to be able to recall the times when there actually was cake or stylish snowshoes and feed this into the chamber of vapours. However, my neighbour’s diligent circling does confirm the palliative aspect of consumption – in this case a modified shopping therapy with some of the satisfaction but no goods. The implanting of the yearning to yearn, however, can be counted as one of the success stories of consumerism.
If the circling project is there to take his mind off laceless life then the choice of shopping catalogues cannot be arbitrary. It’s not the need to draw circles that is compulsive – that could be satisfied by doodling. The need to corral images must be paramount. Once corraled they can be treated as objects of meditation. Consumerist spirituality, wherein essences are, by acts of worship and contemplation, transformed into materials, encourages an intense visualisation that may, at least in a magical world, cause images to take on extra dimensions and become pocketable.
The Tibetan Buddhist notion of the tulpa is a useful correlate: it is believed that an esoteric meditation technique may be employed gradually to transform a thought into an intense and detailed image and thence into a material object or being: the tulpa. If the tulpa is a being it is both sentient and autonomous. Once out of the bottle it must be treated with care lest it wreak havoc. Self help psychology also supports this notion: many an opulent charlatan, fattened by book sales and the lecture circuit, will assert that if you want something badly enough you will get it, such is the power of positive thinking.
It’s window shopping – for some the window will be opened on pay day, for others the window glazes the world. It’s enough to drive you mad.