Thursday, 7 June 2007

Pimp Your 'Lifestyle'

Call me old fashioned but the following makes me quietly despair. It comes from a flyer for a 'new, exciting after work concept' I received when leaving work recently, aimed at yuppie bureaucrats and social climbers of all sorts.
"The 629 Club is:

  • The ultimate choice for those wanting to socialise and network

  • A fantastic place to have fun, discover lifestyle trends, and dance to international music

  • A place where great deals are made and great deals are offered.

  • You will have the opportunity to relax in our chill-out area

  • order food and drinks from the 629 special menu

  • have 'fun and games' in the social playground"

This is just wrong on so many levels. Fun and games in the social playground??? Is that some kind of sick euphemism? Or, rather, a tacit acknowledgement that networking just isn't, sorry, fun? Or that all socialising is networking on the eurocrat scene? That, therefore, the only way to deal with the banalities of repeating the same conversation 70 times over (Hi, darling, great to meet you. Where do you work? Ah, fascinating. Do you know so-and-so? And how is the report proceeding? Listen, I have a client who can give you a heads up on that if you want. Here's my card. Great, let's meet for coffee". Next victim) is to head straight for the special menu, which, if I read the small print correctly, is code for pasta and stale sandwiches. And. I guess, several crates of blanc de blanc.

But, ok, I can live with that part of the 'concept'. After all, networking is a fact of Brussels life and is how people can proceed to get a good job and stay ahead of the competition. BUT - and this is the big but - it is deeply worrying when networking supercedes real, mutually dependent, human relationships as our pattern for interaction.

By that I guess I mean Kant's dictum that people should be respected as ends in themselves and not as means to ends. Clearly, a culture based on networking, which blurs the boundaries between work and private life, is one in which people aren't treated as individuals. Rather, they are reduced to acting as the nodes, the cogs, in a self-referential and continuously expanding network.

I haven't read any myself, but I was discussing the work of Jean Baudrillard with a friend recently. His thesis is seemingly that the nature of social relations is determined by the forms of communication that a society employs. In the West, these relations are characterised by the simulacra of meaning, For example, you call someone you barely know darling, and feign interest in their work, for your own ends. This is what he has called 'hyper-reality', masking economic considerations with a veneer of human concern. Hence, Club 629 is primarily a place where 'great deals are made and great deals are offered' and 'lifestyle trends' are sold to cultural consumers.

That is what I object to so much about this way of living. Nothing we say or do can have its own essence, or authenticity, when we are constantly encouraged to buy into new marketing strategies that manage how we live and understand our own lives. It voids the world of humanity, of meaning, and of real choices.

However, as Baudrillard portentously noted, the expansion of liberal, parliamentary capitalism and its financial commodification unwittingly sows the seeds of reaction against it by its failure to understand the symbolic side of social existence. Indeed, he (controversially) argued that this is the best framework to understand the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the economy of the United States and its military establishment.

Yet that reaction occurs primarily amongst those who are somehow marginalised - or have absented themselves from - these economic and social networks. Theirs is a reaction grounded in exclusion and rejection. But for those whose lives are generated by, and lived within, this set of symbolic references - even when they are critically aware of its nature, as many in Brussels are - finding an adequate response is difficult. Without destroying a system can we regain authentic human relations (if such a thing ever existed)? Or do we simply put up, shut up, and have another drink?

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