‘Why I Buy’ – Rami Gabriel (Authors in Conversation)

 

Why I Buy is a study of the psychological impulses that drive American consumer society. Author Dr. Rami Gabriel embraces a diverse but certainly not disparate set of sources, including economic and consumer studies, to structure his thesis concerning latent impulse-driving signs in advertising, and contrasting societies. While the book could be used as a textbook, Gabriel also sees Why I Buy as a readable and much needed  “analysis of self, taste, and consumer society in America”. While certainly not an idle read, Why I Buy has the ability to stir up debate amongst parties interested in domestic as well as international consumer society – and their viable alternatives. Living with Literature was fortunate enough to sit down with the author and Columbia College Chicago professor of Psychology. This is the first entry in the Authors in Conversation interview series:

 

Rami, thanks for being our inaugural interview in Living with Literature’s Authors in Conversation series. Your book ‘Why I Buy’ is a psychological examination of American consumer society and, as the title suggests, what forces drive consumption. Explain a bit about your attraction to this thesis and how it came to be

 

Rami Gabriel— Thank you. Very happy to take part. Why I Buy is the culmination of many years of studying consumer society in America and, being a psychologist, the psychological roots of American consumerism. I look at what factors and characteristics drive consumers; what really makes these impulses ‘normal’. To achieve this, I used consumer studies, economics, philosophy, as well as advertising and semiotics; or the study of signs.

 

How is this colossal amount of research amalgamated in the text?

 

Rami Gabriel— I start by covering the history of the Self in America as well as other pertinent Western traditions. Then we transfer into the thesis: the individualist nature, the Cartesian dualist, and the expressionist self in American consumer society. These help to structure the widely evident idea that consumers have a need for products to help define their identity. I use semiology in advertising to establish the link between the products and personal, driving impulses.

 

Do you use other societies as a comparison?

 

Rami Gabriel–Yes, in the latter part of the book I incorporate consumerist France and a Middle Eastern country, namely Egypt.  

 

Did you know beforehand that France and Egypt would be the contrasting examples?

 

Rami Gabriel–I wanted a Western European country as well as a cultural hub in the Middle East. For example, France’s consumer society is older than the American counterpart. Yet they are different. What we are seeing in American consumer society is not simply the natural route of such a society, it is historical. And being half-Egyptian, it was easy to navigate that society and understand what the cultural beacon of the Middle East is presenting in way of advertising.

 

To probe deeper, in the history portion of Why I Buy, it is understood that the major conflict of 20th and 21st century liberalism is universal social liberation while maintaining a cohesive society. Each liberal victory is determined by the triumph of a social movement. Mentioned in the book, the majority of people consume information from the media. Can it be presumed, then, that the general populous has less autonomy over social change than the media does?

 

Rami Gabriel— I think that disregards history. History is, of course, portrayed the way people would like it to be portrayed. However, the ideas of liberalism are derived from Lockean ideals and John Stuart Mill’s idea of property. as well the social body and unity from the French Revolution. Even the U.S. Constitution invokes grand liberal ideas of equality. These lingering movements encourage current trends. Yet these trends are deeply woven in the region of origin. For example, the idea of transporting Western democracy to the Middle East: even if a majority of people may want democracy, our idea of Democracy – or the Republican format – ignores historically contingent factors and politically divisive figures.

 

Viewing this on a microlevel, I used to listen to the band Rage Against the Machine during my adolescence. They were signed, paradoxically, to a major label. How could I enjoy such angst-ridden, anti-authoritarian rhetoric in a time of relative domestic prosperity and without the slightest idea of how Western capitalism actually operated? It seems I was supporting the same people I – and the band – ostensibly rallied against.

 

Rami Gabriel–I think you overestimate the concern of major media companies. They care little what the content is, as long as it sells. And I guess the real moral question is with the band. On a major label, they had the ability and subsequently did sell millions of albums. There were rumors that the lead singer drove around in a BMW. A lot of people considered them “fake”. However, a lot of my friends – who are lifelong activists – loved and still love the band. The rumors they hear are that the lead singer lived and fought with the Zapatistas. They also, I remember, put a bunch of socialist reading material in the album liner notes. Personally, I chose to like them because it presented a pathway towards that liberal, Howard Zinn presentation of history for the youth.

 

Do you have any recommendations for further reading on this subject.

 

Rami Gabriel–In the book I cite an awesome read called The Rebel Sell.

 

Continuing on, do you feel that Consumerism deterred the Black and Feminist

movements of the 60’s and  70’s?

 

Rami Gabriel–There is also a wonderful book by Lizabeth Cohen titled A Consumer’s Republic. She discusses Black economic practices in the New Deal and Civil Rights; specifically Black consortiums. Essentially, these consortiums were set up to keep Black money within the community. Jackson, Mississippi, – which has fallen on hard times – for example, used to be a bustling southern Black city. I haven’t followed the Feminist movement as closely. In general, I am weary of identity politics, it is of course important for groups on the margins of power to attain certain political milestones. However, narrow identity movements also have the effect of diffusing larger forms of unity. One party within the culture gets ignored in lieu of the other. While the objectives are admirable, I see more progress in the a functional economic model like that of the consortiums.

 

In Why I Buy you also advocate art as a bonding catharsis to and for consumer society. You mention British magazine ‘The Wire’ as an example. It made me think of Weimar Art. Could you elaborate on this and provide more examples from history?

 

Rami Gabriel–I believe the expressionist nature of art – the artist expressing him or herself – has led to a neglect of the communal production and consumption process of art. Art can be cathartic, with the ability to express the quotidian joys, as well as communal ones. These are human needs. Communal expression can be explicitly political like the TV show The Wire or subtly culturally political, like my hobby of playing classical Arab music. Our actions in the public sphere bring together different – sometimes diametrically opposite and opposing – cultures. This is also evident when I play Mississippi country Blues, for example. We can reinvigorate realities, like the way we like to hear sound in the lineage of Black sharecroppers in American musical history. The more we focus on the artist as a genius, however, the more we lose what is really going on – namely, the human element of sharing.

 

I know you are a voracious reader; are there any narratives that inspired Why I Buy?

 

 

Rami Gabriel–There is an Egyptian book titled Zaat. That story was a lot of fun because it follows a female bureaucrat who works in some cultural ministry in Cairo. It’s very comical and not as neurotic as some American stuff. I wanted to enjoy Delillo’s White Noise, but I didn’t. My reading is usually classical, or if I’m going to read Western literature, it will be V.S. Naipaul. Another book that was a little bit boring, but interesting nonetheless, was Au Bonheur des Dames by Emile Zola. It describes the first shopping center in Paris.

 

What are some of your favorite books? Fiction and non-fiction.

 

Rami Gabriel— Oh geez, my minor was in Comparative Literature…so this could take a while.

 

You could also answer books that got you into Psychology.

 

Rami Gabriel— I can do that more briefly. I got the Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud when I was 13 or 14. I found it very moving since I was a young musician and interested in how the mind works. What also moved me about the book was that people can have grand ideas and explain how things function analytically; an explanation that even little actions can have grand consequences. There is also, of course, the figure of Freud himself. He was a classically educated arch-intellectual who was also a humanist, scientist, and historian. On top of this, he configured his writings in the 19th-century tradition of systems, which makes for compelling theories.

 

Interpretation of Dreams seems like an appropriate choice for a psychologist, Anything else?

 

Rami Gabriel—As a young man, I really enjoyed Burroughs Naked Lunch. Georges Bataille, Andre Breton’s Nadja, all of Kafka. The group of artists I used to run with were really into demented and experimental literature. A lot of poetry, also, especially German. I loved Nietzsche. There was a time when I couldn’t stop reading him. Freud never labeled himself a Nietzschian, but he was undoubtedly aware of him.

 

Lastly, are you working on anything new?

 

Rami Gabriel—Yes, a few things. A technical article about social intelligence at the academic journal New ideas in Psychology. I am also working on an academic book with my colleague Steve Asma titled Evolution of the Mind: The Role of Affect in Culture and Cognition. My own new book manuscript will be an easier read, it follows the different types of psychology in contemporary culture. It will examine pop psychology, academic psychology, and the effect of drug use and therapy on the psyche. This book is called ‘The Uses of Psychology’. Also, I just wrote a review of a book on the self for a great political magazine called In these Times. Lastly, just finished recording a new album of original compositions called Oud blues & New traditions under an Illinois arts council grant. See ramigabriel.wordpress.com.

 

Sounds like you have work cut out for you. Thanks for sitting down with us, Rami. Looking forward to more reading.

Deaf to the Detriment

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The West experienced the horror that 6 members of the French satirical cartoon publication Charlie Hebdo had been killed by Islamic extremists.

Islamophobes are relevant – again!

The terrorists reportedly ransacked the offices of satirical cartoon publication Charlie Hebdo, shot Editor Stephane Carbonnier, Cartoonist Georges Wollinski, and Cartoonist Jean Cabut, then chanted ‘Allhalu Akhbar!’ or ‘God is great‘. As the shooters fled, they also claimed their killing had ‘avenged the prophet Muhammad’. Such sayings, of course, are what all religious zealots chant in some form or another.

This particular group of Islamic terrorists was incensed at the continued portrayal of the supreme prophet Muhammad in Hebdo. Though the magazine contemptuously satirizes political and cultural leaders across the spectrum, the most newsworthy and economically profitable editions are those depicting Muhammad in a negative light.

The first instance of controversy came in 2006, when Hebdo published the infamous Jylland-Posten comics, which depicted Muhammad in a less-than-flattering light. The Grand Mosque, Muslim World League, and the Union of French Islamist Organizations took editor Phillipe Val to court, though he was ultimately acquitted. Four years later Hebdo would find their offices firebombed after the issue Charia Hebdo’ (a version of Sharia) depicted Muhammad as a ‘guest-editor’ as well as on the cover saying: ‘100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing’. The attack, however, failed to dissuade Hebdo from publishing a series of illustrations featuring a nude grand prophet Muhammad in crude and compromising positions.

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Currently a large-scale manhunt for the killers is happening in streets of Paris. Simultaneously, there is universal condemnation of the religiously motivated attack in the Western world. The U.S. has already voiced support  for French president Francois Hollande, if he so requests. The major leaders of Europe have characterized the attack as ‘barbarism’ and an ‘assault on our freedom of expression’.

Formerly fatwa-ed Salman Rushdie also contributed his thoughts: ‘Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern technology becomes a real threat to our freedom. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which, has always been a force for liberty against tyranny, dishonesty, and stupidity.’

Certainly today’s attack by the extremist is reprehensible and freedom of expression a necessity. Yet, what are we in the West espousing as expression? Is it our prerogative to display the once sacred (i.e. religious iconography) without sanctity? When North Korea (supposedly) issued a warning that if American theaters were to screen controversial film The Interview, the U.S. public should ‘remember 9/11′ — it was seen as offensive to our right of free expression. The American response to the threat was new sanctions on North Korea and, if a certain journalist would have been listened to, preemptive war without a guilty verdict. Isn’t it rational, then, to assume devout believers of Islam would react in an equally aggressive way to a similarly provocative act?

While we in the West view democratic tradition with divine reverence, other cultures have disparate and occasionally diametrically opposing beliefs. To the followers of New Atheism and Neoconservatism, if these religious sects and minority groups are to live amongst us – and for the indigenous people not to end up submitting to the alien belief – what they hold dear must be treated with the same ridicule and mockery that Western ideals are contemporarily cherished. While this calumny may be acceptable to the point of banality in our culture, a large portion of the world are as shocked as the Catholic priests seeing Luther’s Theses. Thus, some Muslims, understandably, seek little need for a religious schism that would see Islam met with the same irreverence as Western Christianity. In fact, their willing to kill for it.

During the 2008 trial of the Grand Mosque of Paris and the Union of French Islamic Organizations vs Phillipe Val, the Hebdo editor claimed it is ‘racist to assume they (Muslims) can’t understand a joke.’ It is certainly a generalization. Yet, what would the (largely sectarian) Muslim community find so funny about the breaking of Aniconism with images of their Grand Prophet inserted into Brigitte Bardot’s compromising position in Godard’s Contempt. Such imagery leaves this Western Protestant un-amused and wondering: why do we find it so necessary to continually yell ‘fire’ in a crowded room. If we would like to have the dialogue and debate with the Muslim world about Islamic terrorism, lets avoid denigrating an important tenant of their quotidian existence. Charlie Hebdo’s idea of an illustrated olive branch is akin to the logic the Bush administration presented when imposing democracy on the Middle East: through the barrel of a gun.

The rational bodies of the Muslim world voiced their opinion to the editors of Charlie Hebdo. They continued to print inflammatory material. Today, unfortunately, their biting satirical message fell upon the ears of the radicalized and irrational.

(For George Galloway)

 

Daniel Engelke,

1/8/2014

Top Reads of 2014

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Here are our favorite reads of the 2014

1. The Sheltering Sky– Paul Bowles

2. Stained Glass – William F. Buckley

3. Essays:1952 – 1992 – Gore Vidal

4. Short Breaks in Mordor – Peter Hitchens

5. Burmese Days – George Orwell

6. Why I Buy – Rami Gabriel

7. Overdrive – William F. Buckley

8. 1919 – John Dos Passos

9. Quiet Days in Clichy – Henry Miller

10. The Moviegoer – Walker Percy

(Reviews to come for the all except ‘Overdrive’ and Vidal’s essays)