An increasingly disposable culture

Our ravenous consumer appetites are not restricted to clothes, accessories, gadgets, homes, cars and yachts, it seems. They also extend to a range of «cultural products» which are apparently consumed for the sake of it as they constitute symbols of learning and influence, aspects of a social profile built upon the stereotypes of the wealthy, stylish, literate and «in.» It is worth considering the case of the 52-year-old French literature professor Pierre Bayard, whose recently published book «How to Talk About Books One Has Not Read» – although destined for a narrow circle of university professors – has become a best seller and copies are selling like hot cakes at supermarkets and airports. His method is simple and established. Even if you haven’t read the dust jacket of a particular book you can criticize it perfectly using pompous and abstract expressions which will impress the ignorant and flatter the author. Bayard himself, as he admitted to the press, often criticizes books such as James Joyce’s «Ulysses,» Hermann Hesse’s «Steppenwolf» and Sigmund Freud’s «Interpretation of Dreams,» without remembering them (and in some cases, without even having read them) and he does not feel at all guilty about this. Man’s relationship with books is more important than the books themselves, he says. In some ways this is nothing new. People have always wanted to pretend that they have greater intellectual capacity than they actually do. We may remember a fad of bookshelves being sold with the fake spines of books inserted into the shelves, but things are rather different today. To begin with, we have a plethora of «new editions» – books, music CDs and works of art – rotating in and out of shop windows at a dizzying speed. The shelf life of these products is so short, in fact, that it is debatable whether the consumer has enough time to make essential use of them. Also, we are witnessing the transformation of intellectual products into disposable consumer goods; among the tons of garbage produced daily, there are more and more second-hand books, old CDs and tapes. The mechanism that transforms a work of art into a disposable product is well known. For years now, experts in the arts industry have been plundering the whole gamut of current and past culture in the search for appropriate material which can be made entertaining and digestible and dished out for mass sale. Many argue that this is the only way to educate the public at large, by offering them appealing cultural insights at accessible prices. In reality, one merely ends up replacing ignorance with cliches. There is no substitute for concentrated reading, listening and the soul-searching that accompanies these activities.