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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Cathedrals of Consumption (p. 534)

From chapter "The Closing of the Iron Cage"

I asked George Ritzer what’s wrong with rationalization, in the sense that he uses the term.

“The short answer,” he said, “is that rational systems carry with them a series of irrational consequences. In some senses those irrational consequences are the opposite of the basic principles, so what’s supposed to be an efficient system often ends up being quite inefficient. You drive ten miles and wait in line in order to get fast food. If you include driving time it would often be much quicker to cook a meal at home than to pile in a car, drive to McDonald’s, and wait in line.”

Efficiency. One of the chief rationales used by the civilized to buttress the killing of indigenous peoples and the stealing of their land has always been to say that the indigenous are inefficient in their use of land. Indeed, they have often been accused of not using the land at all. In the Supreme Court decision, where he stated that “discovery gave title . . . which title might be consummated by possession,” John Marshall also remarked that to “leave them [Indians] in possession of their country, was to leave the country a wilderness.” The irony of us perceiving our economic and social system as efficient as we systematically poison ourselves and destroy our land base has never escaped me. The question becomes: efficient at what? The answer of course leads us back to the question of precisely what happens in the process of industrial production.

“There’s a broader sense of irrationality of rationality,” he said, “which comes down, I think most importantly, to dehumanization. These are dehumanizing or antihuman kinds of settings. And another of the irrationalities of rationality is what I call, following Max Weber, the disenchantment of the world. The magic, the mystery, the religious qualities of the world, are progressively challenged in a progressively rationalized world, and so for Weber and for me progressive rationalization brings with it disenchantment, desacralization, what ever you want to call it. Our science and our bureaucratic social organizations have gradually and systematically stripped the natural world both of its magical properties and of its capacity for meaning.”

We have also stripped magic and meaning from ourselves, I thought.

“Or perhaps they’ve stripped us of our capacity to perceive the magic and meaning that inheres.”

I thought about the consequences of this stripping away of meaning. It’s another form of that objectification I’ve been trying to get at in this book, a turning of everyone in the world from a You to an It. It seems to me that this stripping away can lead only to one end: the eradication of life. To psychologically convert the living to the dead through this process of rationalization is the big step. Revving the chainsaw, tearing off the mountaintop, pulling the gun’s trigger, dropping the crystals of Zyklon B: these, then, become mere technical activities, forming only the final parts of the equation. I asked how all this happens.

“We can take the elements of rationalization again one by one. Efficiency leaves no room for the enchanted. Anything that’s magical, mysterious, fantastic, dreamy, is apt to be inefficient. Furthermore, enchanted systems are often complex, and involve highly convoluted means to whatever ends are involved. And they may very well have no obvious ends at all. By definition, efficient systems don’t allow meanderings. Thus, designers of efficient systems try to eliminate as many of the preconditions for enchantment as possible.”

I thought again of life, which has no obvious end, except the process of enjoying this particular moment in this particular place, and the joy of meandering. I’m in no hurry to reach the end point of my life, nor to wish away any of the time in between. I don’t want to live efficiently, nor cause others to. I want to live broadly, deeply, richly, with resonance, in full enjoyment of my own particular life.

“We can make essentially the same arguments for calculability. How do you quantify the enchanted? Since it cannot be readily quantified, it’s at best ignored, and quite often eliminated when encountered at all.

“No characteristic of rationalization is more inimical to enchantment than predictability. All of these enchanted experiences of magic, fantasy, or dream are almost by definition unpredictable. As for the other characteristics of rationalized systems, control and nonhuman technologies are absolutely inimical to any feeling of enchantment. Fantasy, dreams, and so on cannot be subjected to external controls; indeed, autonomy is much of what gives them their enchanted quality.”

We looked at each other across the coffee table in his living room. I sat in a comfortable chair. He sat on an overstuffed couch. Outside, the day was warm, with just a touch of November crispness. The leaves on the trees and on the ground were yellow, and they blew in the wind. “And having disenchanted the world,” I said, “or our perception of the world, our system then offers us a sort of ironic reenchantment, a simulated reenchantment. .. .”

“That’s what it is,” he said.

I thought of the spectacles created by our culture that dazzle us day by day. I thought of Juvenal’s line about bread and circuses, that “the people, who once had the power to grant . . . everything, now holds itself back and anxiously desires only two things: bread and circuses. ‘I hear many men are going to die [in the arena].’ ‘No doubt. The furnace is huge. . . .’ ” I thought about R. D. Laing’s rules of a dysfunctional family or culture, and how we talk about everything but those things that matter most. I thought about O. J., Lewinski, March Madness, Super Bowls, electoral horse races, the stock market, celebrity marriages (Quick: name six celebs and their marital status; now, name six different plants that live within fifty feet of where you are at this particular moment; now, name six different species that live in your region which have been harmed by civilization; now, give the indigenous name for the place you live.) I thought of so many ways we keep ourselves distracted from the particularity of our lives.

We have a need for enchantment that is as deep and devoted as our need for food and water. Having blinded ourselves to the world’s enchantment, we have filled that gap-—that was previously filled with relationships—with what Ritzer calls “cathedrals of consumption,” which are enchanted enough to dazzle us, yet, at the same time, designed along rational lines. In other words, they are under control, and as such can be used as a means of control.

He said, “I was just in Milan, Italy, where I walked through the Galleria Victorio Emanuele. It’s an old-fashioned arcade built in the 1880s, a beautiful structure. In the very center of the arcade, as you would expect (at least these days), there’s a McDonald’s. And as you exit the arcade, there’s a magnificent duomo—a cathedral, a huge church, the ultimate in sacred enchantment. Then directly across the square is another McDonald’s. This all led me to reflect: These are all means of consumption, means to allow people to consume things. . .”

I thought he meant the consumption of hamburgers on one hand and of religious services on the other. I said I thought there’s a difference between McDonald’s and a cathedral.

He shook his head. “They’re all cathedrals of consumption. It’s just that what’s being consumed varies. Cathedrals were constructed along highly rationalized lines.”

“I’m no fan of Christianity,” I said, “but I’m still a little bit uncomfortable lumping . . .”

“Think of Notre Dame.”

“Even as a post-Christian,” I insisted, “I still feel a sense of awe in a big cathedral. I don’t feel the same sense of awe I feel in the natural world, but I still feel something.”

“That’s precisely the point,” he said. “All of these human-made settings are designed to create that sense of awe. They’re designed to be spectacular. Designed to be awesome. The strip in Las Vegas is in its way awesome, and the major casinos are awesome. They’re spectacular. That’s what draws people to them. That’s what all the cathedrals of consumption share. . . .”

I still wasn’t getting it. I said, “When you say cathedrals of consumption, you’re including Notre Dame?”

“Yes. The starting point for all of this is the question: How do you draw people? You get people to come by creating a structure which overwhelms them, which wows them, which causes them to throw up their hands and say, ‘This is extraordinary and I’m coming back again and again and again.’”

I got it. It’s part of the false contract we’ve signed. What keeps us coming back to civilization? What keeps us from rebelling? What keeps us from murdering our masters in their sleep, and returning to the egalitarian lives we lived throughout so much of human existence? Think about this: The music in grocery stores is chosen to pull consumers through the store. The seats at fast-food restaurants are uncomfortable, not just because those who own corporations don’t want to spend money on them, but because they don’t want customers to linger. Artificially created settings are designed to accomplish specific purposes. This is true whether we’re talking about fast-food restaurants, capitol buildings, or cathedrals. It’s true whether the structures we’re talking about are physical or social. What do our rationalized social structures draw us to do? How do they enchant us, mesmerize us, draw us in? What magic do they offer if we give up our understanding—and realization—of our relatedness to all other beings? To what larger enchantments do they blind us? And to what ends to they lead us?

Years ago, I was driving in North Idaho, which is beautiful, with my friend, Roianne. We saw a church that had been started and then abandoned, and Roianne said, “It’s a good thing they stopped building. How could someone even think about building a house of worship that would exclude all this beauty?”

I said to George, “Why should they come to your church, or to your shopping mall, if they have beauty in their own backyards?”

“No human-made spectacle approximates the natural spectacle. But the real attraction of these human-made spectacles is that you can build them the way you want in order to do what you want to people. So a cathedral—and cathedrals really aren’t the point here, but instead stand in for so much of our culture—is built in a certain way. . . . ”

“To make you feel puny,” I said.

“To make you feel puny.”

“That’s very bad.”

“If you bristle at external control over your life, yes, it’s very bad. But from the perspective of those in power . . .”