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.