April 19th, 2008


I and I deal in righteousness!

My latest piece for New York Times magazine blog The Moment is Ethical consumerism's next wave. It links Virtual Water with secondhand clothes and the non-consumerism of Fumiko Imano's "Dream Closet" performance.

I won't keep pretending the blog isn't real, but I'm fascinated by the kind of dialectics my Post-Materialist slot sets up with its context -- this week, for instance, the message "just don't buy clothes" finds itself luring readers towards ads for Bloomingdale's bags.

With my current thinking on hypocrisy, I'm much more inclined to see this as "generative dynamism" or "an interesting tension" or "a realistic complexity" than the h-word. Or, if it is hypocrisy -- a secular ethical sin of sorts -- it's also an opportunity to introduce the concept of other secular ethical sins, like the list I begin this week's article with: unfair trade, non-recycling, carbon emissions, water waste.

In other words, in order to bang an ethical drum about the evils of consumerism in a consumerist forum, I need to be a hypocrite of some sort. I need to commit at least one sin in order to raise consciousness about others. Anything else would be preaching to the choir. But there are risks. For a start, there's the risk that I'll become like some kind of homeless rasta at a swank cocktail party, tolerated but ignored as I slump in the corner muttering about how Babylon shall fall as the mighty Lion of Judah rises in righteousness. Secondly, there's the risk that ethical consumerism just fits into the dialectic already at work in our attitude to our own consumerism: guilty pleasures, rich and poor, need and plethora, famine and feast, boom and bust, anorexia and bulimia.

A consumer magazine can as easily appetize its readers as ethicize them by talking about scenarios in which people are too poor to consume. Take Fumiko Imano's Dream Closet performance, for instance. I try to present it as something ethical -- consume expensive clothes without actually buying them! -- but when I interview Fumiko she tells me she isn't interested in that. She's rather down on ecology and ethical consumerism. She thinks it's hypocritical. But even if she'd been 100% eco-ethically correct in her statements, the vision of her trying on clothes in London and Paris could well be appetizing, a consumerist lure. There's a distinct sense, in the film, that Fumiko is "getting something for nothing" -- the exact same sense that advertisers often invoke when they offer free prizes as a way to lure us into thinking about making purchases.

It's an idea I keep coming back to: things contain their opposite. An ethical post-materialist column could well kindle consumerist urges. It seems to be working that way on me: I may be the Times' post-materialist Babylon Critic (an' ting), but the person I'd most like to be is Chandler Burr, the paper's Perfume Critic. I've become fascinated by Chandler's slot in The Moment, Scent Notes. Yes, I have column envy. While I write plainly and sternly about water, Burr is writing the most florid, elegant prose imaginable about Ballade Verte by Manuel Canovas.

"Ballade Verte," purrs Burr, "smells to me like the authentic aromatic gum resin galbanum, an ancient raw material from modern-day Iran. Galbanum is listed as a sweet herb in chapter 30 of Exodus. (”And thou shalt make it a perfume,” God tells Moses, “a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy.”) It is, in fact, bitter to the taste, but the scent is like nothing else: deeply, darkly, earthily green, old and musty in the best way, a rich and almost rotting organic green like fresh branches mixed into soil. Dirtier than vetiver, richer than basil, greener than myrrh... The result is a scent to wear on chilly nights at parties in marble halls — perhaps the foyer of the New York Public Library."

Burr gets to be biblical too, but instead of invoking sin he conjures an ancient sensuality through olfactory poetry -- the necessary descriptive impressionism scent (still impossible to quantify or qualify any other way) demands. And how completely fabulous that he gets not only to describe these musks, but recommend the locations (the New York Public Library, "where the candles burn, the men are wearing black tie, and the women wear long black gowns, pearls, and ancient green galbanum") they should be worn in! No wonder Morrissey leaves a comment!

Something about Burr's evocative, aristocratic style reminds me of my favourite Times writer, the late great Herbert Muschamp, the paper's architectural critic, who died last year of lung cancer aged 59. Muschamp was an outrageous stylist, comparing Frank Gehry's Disney Concert Hall, for instance, to Judy Garland's face "framed by her splayed hands". Here he is recalling his student days at the Architectural Association and being shown around London by a young Derek Jarman. That article is flawed -- Muschamp attributes a building to the Smithsons which wasn't by them at all -- but his prose is rich and aromatic. And what would a great perfume be without its flaws and contradictions? A bit like consumerism without sin, perhaps. Jah Rastafari!