By Kimberly J. Lau
University of Pennsylvania Press, 192 pp.
It's one of those niggling contradictions of modern life that the "simpler" your lifestyle is, the more it seems to cost. Natural fibers, organic foods, loofah sponges: These things come at a premium over your polyesters, your Kraft mac and cheese, and a good old washcloth. Aromatherapy, the yoga programs on Greek islands, and the courses in ancient martial arts--no doubt about it, maintaining inner serenity could mean taking a second job. Kimberly J. Lau, an English and Women's Studies professor at the University of Utah, takes on the "Eastern" alterna-industries in "New Age Capitalism: Making Money East of Eden." Lau argues that the modern obsession with Eastern religion, diet and lifestyle is an up-to-date, multi-culti variant of what Edward Said called "Orientalism," finding in the mystical East all that is lacking in the rationalized, industrial West. The West is the realm of reason the cant goes; the East, that of sensuality. Western man is separate from nature; in the East, humanity and nature are one. The West represents modernity, while the East stands for traditional society, humanity in its Golden Age. But the East is necessary to the West, for it symbolizes all that appears absent in modern society.
The American craving for yoga, aromatherapy, and organic foods suggests a deep discomfort with modern capitalist society, a longing for a different kind of world. (Lau is careful to note that "traditional" society only became an ideal in contrast with modern life; in reality, peasant life was nasty, brutish and short.)
This discontent with modernity expresses itself through the purchase of bath perfumes and exotic spices, massages and yoga classes, lotions and lipsticks made with oils from the rainforest. "The antidote for "inner emptiness" ... that "cannot be filled by external prosperity" requires external prosperity to be acquired," writes Lau. Tranquility, peace, serenity: all can be yours for $6.99 a bottle. (Or $830 for an ounce of Aveda's "violet absolute.") The body and state of consciousness--rather than society--are supposed to be transformed by buying expensive products which have near-magic capacities.
Through controlling his or her own body, therefore, the individual neutralizes troubling or threatening aspects of society, like pollution and global economic inequality or the daily anxieties of living in an ever-changing, ever-revolutionized world.
By focusing on the individual, the "Eastern" industries reinforce the isolation and atomization which lead consumers to crave transcendance in the first place. As Lau puts it, "the individualization of modern society motivates the New Age fascination with self-discovery and self-healing."
In short, "New Age" capitalism reinforces narcissism. More than that, it draws an explicit link between consumption and social transformation. By buying organic food, the consumer strikes a blow against agribusiness. In purchasing a lotion made with nuts from the rainforest, the shoppersupports indigenous communities. But the reality is that there is no clear link between such individual acts of consumption and political change. In fact, "alternative" industries require the continued existence of the very ills they mourn. The organic food niche market depends upon the existence of agribusiness, just as the Body Shop ad campaigns require a contrast between "traditional" villages and the harsh modern world. The "Eastern" industries require the illusion of cultural difference at a time when the world is becoming more homogenous than ever before. American consumers would know little if anything of the "traditional" Japanese macrobiotic diet, and Japan is actually more similar to the West today than different. The spread of the world market obliterates traditional cultures, at the same time as it generates desire for artifacts of cultural difference--hopefully on sale in a mall down the block.
Lau's excellent book explores the many cultural contradictions in the current craze for things alternative. But her most interesting twist is in the final chapter. She suggests that the promises made for t'ai chi, massage, and aromatherapy may not be so different from the promises made for any consumer product. All consumption involves a degree of magical thinking: If I only have this SUV, this scented lotion, this pair of leather pants, then I will be sensual, relaxed, helping to change the world. "New Age Capitalism" is a powerful indictment of consumer society's founding myth: that everything from inner serenity to world peace can be packaged, bought and sold.