Consumption Junction

Human activity is not entirely reducible to processes of production and conservation, and consumption must be divided into two distinct parts. The first reducible part is represented by the use of the minimum necessary for the conservation of life and the continuation of the individuals’ productive activity in a given society; it is therefore a question simply of the fundamental condition of productive activity.  The second part is represented by so-called unproductive expenditures: luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, perverse sexual activity (i.e. deflected from genital finality) — all these represent activities which, at least in primitive circumstances, have no end beyond themselves.  Now it is necessary to reserve the use of the word expenditure for the designation of these unproductive forms, and not for the designation of all the modes of consumption that serve as a means to the end of production.
—Bataille, “The Notion of Expenditure”

In Power Ring and Comic Book Part 1, I sought to draw parallels between the patterns of archaic myth and modern comic-book serials.  In the comments-thread of that essay, Mladen Luketin asked if my definition of myth was affected by the question of a particular fictional work’s commercial origins, which I considered to be tantamount to making an inquiry into its “means of production.”

In this essay, I won’t repeat my answer vis-à-vis the validity of the pattern-comparison. But because many comics-critics center their discussions of creativity upon the essentially Marxist theory of production, it behooves me to ask if that theory is as applicable to human creativity as Marxists believe, and whether or not there might exist a more fundamental criterion.

In his essay “The Notion of Expenditure,” Georges Bataille proposed his concept of “consumption” as a more fundamental criterion for judging the nature of human art:

“The secondary character of production and acquisition in relate to expenditure appears most clearly in primitive economic institutions, since exchange is still treated as a sumptuary loss of ceded objects: thus at base exchange presents itself as a process of expenditure, over which a process of acquistion has developed.”

As seen in the opening quote, “expenditure” refers to just one of two aspects of the cultural process of consuming things; elsewhere Bataille plainly distinguishes this aspect from anything related to “production and conservation.”  Marx defined all aspects of culture through the consideration of who controlled the means of production, and proposed socialism as a solution to the problem of alienated labor.  But if Bataille is right, then a more fundamental and inescapable alienation exists between the two aspects of consumption: the desire to conserve and the desire to expend.

In my Sequart essays on Stan Lee and on Green Lantern, I’ve explored some of the ways in which “management” may have had a positive impact on creativity.  This stands in contrast to the typical Marxist reading, which always assumes that management inhibits creativity, in contrast to a situation where, as Luketin suggests, “the concept is free to blow in the wind.”

Of course, perfect freedom doesn’t exist.  Whether the creator is an archaic Icelandic skald or a modern purveyor of artcomics, he earns his daily bread by offering cultural experiences that “have no end beyond themselves.”  A cash nexus supports the exchange between artist and audience, but as Bataille suggests, this “process of acquisition” has simply layered over a more fundamental form of exchange. No artist exists without influence from his real or potential audience, even as that audience changes in response to the more provocative attempts to find the audience’s favor.  This egalitarian reading stands in stark contrast to the elitist vision of an avant-gardist like Clement Greenberg, propounding the romantic notion of unalloyed geniuses leading pliable audiences into the promised land of enlightenment.

The artist creates from his perception of what he believes an intended audience wants and/or needs to consume.  However, the creative ability of a John Broome can be mediated by a management-figure like Julie Schwartz, who, while not creative as such, has insight into the audience’s wants and needs, the processes of consumption.  The annals of canonical literature are no less full of such mediating figures, such as Maxwell Perkins, whom Thomas Wolfe credited as having no small impact on the organization of the novel Look Homeward Angel.

This is not to say that management-personnel never has deleterious effects upon the free flow of creativity. In this essay I noted that Marvel editor Jim Shooter improved one Chris Claremont story through his intervention, but there are numerous anecdotes from industry professionals that suggest less than salutary results from other editorial choices by Shooter.  Creators, management figures, and even audiences can all make poor judgments, but even these must be seen in a spectrum alongside the good judgments, all of which may be subsumed by Bataille’s concept of art as a non-utilitarian form of consumption.

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Also by Gene Phillips:

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen


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