The Enlightened Consumer
Reading and writing about minimalism naturally triggers a bit of online research. One day my search turned up the terms “Diderot effect,” and “Diderot unities.” I only knew of one Diderot, the 18th-century French philosopher–sure enough, the terms referred to him, and in particular to an essay he wrote on the problems with consumerism, “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown.”
When the new spoils us for the old
Diderot describes the gift of a new red robe, so beautiful and luxurious that it makes everything else in his wardrobe and home look unacceptably shabby by comparison. So he replaces his utilitarian straw chair with a leather one, his simple fir bookshelf with an inlaid armoire, etc. This process of upgrading continues with purchase after purchase, including expensive art from auction houses, until he is in debt and his lifestyle no longer reflects his original values:
I was the absolute master of my old robe. I have become the slave of the new one.
The “Diderot effect” is the phenomenon of a new possession causing a chain reaction of acquiring more new possessions to go with it. Things that “go with” one another are referred to as “Diderot unities.” These terms were coined back in the 1980’s by anthropologist Grant McCracken in his book, “Culture and Consumption,” and expanded on by sociologist Juliet Schor in her essay, “Learning Diderot’s Lesson: Stopping the Upward Creep of Desire;” they have since become part of the language of analyzing consumer and marketing trends. Do a search for those terms, and you’ll find lots of articles and posts that pretty much say the same thing.
What I find particularly interesting is that Diderot is one of the foremost philosophers of the Enlightenment, also known as The Age of Reason. He was an original and daring thinker, often in trouble with the status quo, challenging established notions and pointing out cultural and moral absurdities whenever he could. Consumerism was one of his pet peeves, especially the extent to which people were willing to go for the sake of appearances, not only into debt, but into actual discomfort and inconvenience, and all for what? To live in a style admired in others?
Diderot points out that once the luxurious lifestyle is attained, it isn’t all what it was cracked up to be. Different socioeconomic levels come with different expectations (even the hired help has to look a certain way), and those expectations are in turn expensive to meet. There is actually less mundane personal freedom, as well. A fancy robe doesn’t lend itself to wiping the dust off the cover of a book like the old one did, another way of saying that it doesn’t fit with natural, engaged actions. He goes as far as to suggest that those who try to appear wealthier or of a higher status are little better than whores who are tarted up in fancy evening clothes by night, but who look far worse during the light of day than any peasant woman who doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what she is.
Enlightenment is defined as “the full comprehension of a situation,” making it a term applicable to both reason and spirituality; it is an awakening, an awareness as to what is going on. We can be aware of being tempted by the allure of the new–new technology, new shoes, new jeans–but we can also be aware of who we really are, which serves as a core value that moderates temptation.
It’s been a while since the last time I succumbed to the Diderot effect in a major way. Minor ones still occur now and then–a new coat (which was necessary) made my old purse look ridiculous; super-comfortable new shoes (which were necessary) made my old jeans bunch up around the ankle in manner that looked all wrong on a 58-year-old woman. You get the idea.
Then during last summer’s new-garden project, I didn’t settle for just any old patio table set (as I’d been doing for years), but upgraded to a good heavy table and comfortable chairs, all of which also fold up for easy winter storage. No regrets, either. And many of the climbing plants and shrubs I bought were quite mature, to give the garden green walls a few years sooner.
Having a private, comfortable garden to sit, read, and dine in is actually part of who I am at the core; it wasn’t done to put on appearances or change my status, but there were definitely “Diderot unities” at play in the project, an awareness of suitability of the various elements with one another. The garden looks so nice that the section of the yard next to it now looks quite shabby….
What are your “Diderot unities?”