Catalog of the Possible

January 4, 2013 § 2 Comments


Whilst writing my forthcoming book SAVED: How to Break the Spell of Money, Live Well, and Change the World (how’s that for thinkin’ small?), I read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. It’s a fantastic book, if at times a little intellectually dense for a simple fella like myself. Still and all, I highly recommend it.

In The Gift, Hyde talks about the “catalog of possible lives”, as defined by the consumer/commodity economy.

“The excitement of commodities is the excitement of possibility, of floating away from the particular to taste the range of available life. There are times when we want to be aliens and strangers, to feel how the shape of our lives is not the only shape, to drift before a catalog of possible lives, staring at the glass arcades of shoes that are sensible and shoes for taking a chance, buses leaving town and the gray steam railway depot where men and women hurry by with their bags.”

What Hyde doesn’t mention, but what I believe is implicit to the book as a whole, is that the “catalog of possible lives” can include so much more than what the consumer economy offers. I’ve spoken of it before (here and here) in the context of stories – not written stories, but life stories. I am fascinated by how the stories we tell ourselves about wealth and happiness and acceptance and security are so often the stories we are being told to tell ourselves. In other words, they are the stories contained within Hyde’s “catalog of possible lives”, those which make us subservient to the commodity consumer economy.

To be sure, the entities at the helm of this economy are enormously skilled at writing themes of beauty and freedom and need into the stories they’re selling, to the point that we manage to convince ourselves that, for instance, buying a new car for the improvement in fuel mileage it offers represents some sort of forward-thinking progress, conveniently ignoring the fact that the energy embedded in the construction of our shiny new machine will never be offset by marginal efficiency gains. Likewise, we ignore the often-toxic rare earth materials (and not inconsequently, the environmental and social devastation wrought by mining them) contained within every piece of digitized seduction Apple puts forth. Or maybe we don’t ignore it: Maybe we know, but that knowing withers in the face of our desire to gain the social acceptance and so-called connection such devices promise. (And yes, I’m writing this on an iMac). For our children, we buy toys of amazing detail, realism, and technological prowess, believing the fallacy that these toys encourage imaginative play, when in fact the best way to develop a child’s imagination is to give him a stick and an afternoon without schedule or expectation.

This may be obvious by now, but I believe strongly in the quiet activism of personal choice, and I often wonder what the world might look like if we stopped listening to the stories we are told by the consumer economy, and started writing our own stories. What might the world look like if we stopped believing the prevailing-but-largely-unacknowledged cultural belief that the choices defining what we experience, how we feel, what we value, and, in a sense, who we are, can be bought?

I have enormous respect for the people I know whose view of themselves and the world around them is not dependent on the catalog of the possible, as defined by the consumer economy. And I can’t help but notice how these people strike me as the most contented folks I know. They are all, to varying degrees, bereft of the items contained within the pages of the aforementioned catalog, and to the casual observer, they are likely to appear as simply poor. Many of them labor long, hard hours at tasks affording little, if any, recognition beyond their small community of friends and neighbors.

So yeah, these people may be poor. But is it possible they are also wealthy? I’m pretty sure we all know the answer to that.









§ 2 Responses to Catalog of the Possible

  • Peter Burke says:

    Hey Ben, so true. When I was a kid the only vision of success was money and the things you could buy. Period. A carefully crafted message I am sure. It didn’t look that way to me back then and still doesn’t. I’ve seen too many people who had ‘everything’ and were still unhappy and dissatified. My Dad was one of them.

    In the catalog I suspect that ‘a life of contentment’ would not be on the list, but it would be my definition of rich or wealth or even success.

  • Hi, Ben (and family). Some friends and I (in GA) are now looking forward to this new book!

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