COMMODITIES AND THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN FRONTIER
As Smelser has observed in his analysis of the myth of California, every myth has an element of both reality and unreality. In our mental life a myth is located somewhere between daydream and ideology.21 We have a myth of the American frontier, and of course, there really was a western frontier. The very possibility that a young man on a New England farm could set out for a more fertile and extensive plot of land out west led his parents to be more lenient, the historian Philip Greven shows, in hopes of motivating him to stay.22 Attached to this real geographic frontier is a larger set of meanings, perhaps, including the idea that one can always leave something worse for something better. One doesn’t have to stay and live with frustration and ambivalence: one can freely seek one’s fortune on the emotional frontier. American heroes from Daniel Boone and Paul Bunyan to the restless prairie cowboy analyzed by Erik Erikson start somewhere and end somewhere else. At the end of Huckleberry Finn, Huck says, “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it.”23
Myths grow and change, and as part of change, myths can extend themselves to other areas of life. And perhaps we have seen a symbolic transfer of the fantasy of liberation from a geographic frontier to a commodity frontier. For the geographic frontier the point of focus is a person’s location on land. For the commodity frontier the point of focus is a location in a world of goods and services. Instead of “going somewhere,” the individ-
ual “buys something.” And buying something becomes a way of going somewhere.
In the past, the fantasy of a perfect purchase might more often have centered on some feature of external reality. One might have dreamed of buying a perfect house, on a perfect lot of land, signifying one’s rise in social station. But today, as more elements of intimate and domestic life become objects of sale, the commodity frontier has taken on a more subjective cast. So the modem purchase is more likely to be sold to us by implying access to a “perfect” private self in a “perfect” private relationship. For example, a recent ad in the New Yorker for “Titan Club, an Exclusive Dating Service” asks:
Who says you can t have it all? Titan Club is the first exclusive dating club for men of your stature. You already have power, prestige, status and success. But, if “at the end of the day” you realize “someone” is missing, let Titan Club help you find her. Titan Club women are intelligent, diverse, sexy and beautiful. With a 95% success rate, we are confident that you will find exactly what you are looking for in a relationship.-1
The fantasy of the perfect relationship is linked to the fantasy of the perfect personality with whom one has this relationship. Consider an ad for KinderCare Learning Centers, a for-profit childcare chain: “You want your child to be active, tolerant, smart, loved, emotionally stable, self-aware, artistic, and get a two-hour nap. Anything else?”25 The service will produce, it implies, the perfect child with whom a busy parent has a perfect relationship.
This sort of ad promises a great deal about ambivalence. It promises to get rid of it. If Titan promises “exactly what you are looking for in a relationship” and if KinderCare promises exactly the personality you want in your child, they also deliver a state of unambivalence. And this is the hidden appeal in the marketing associated with much modern commodification. Thus, the prevailing myth of the frontier, commodification, and the subjective realm have fused into one—a commodity frontier that is moving into the world of our private desires. And to do so it borrow or steals—only time will tell—from the sense of enchantment earlier reserved for the home.
A word more about ambivalence. One way we “go west” is to buy goods and services that promise a family-like experience. But in doing so, we also pursue the fantasy of a life free from ambivalence. But the very act of fleeing ambivalence also expresses ambivalence. For commercial substitutes for f amily life do not eliminate ambivalence. They express and legitimize it. To return to our example of the shy millionaire, we might say that he is trying to act on two impulses. On one hand, he seeks the perfect woman to be by his side for many different purposes. This is one side of the ambivalence. On the other hand, he seeks to avoid entanglement with her. That’s the other side of the ambivalence. Indeed, the man may be curtailing his idea
of what he “needs” in order to fit into the narrow window of what he can purchase.