THE RICOCHET OF THE COMMODITY IMAGES
The Frankfurt school of sociology and more recent scholars such as Juliet Schor and Robert Kuttner have criticized consumerism without focusing on the family. Family scholars such as William Goode or Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg have focused on the family without attending much to consumerism. Indeed, with the exception of Viviana Zelizer, Christopher Lasch, and Jan Dizard and Howard Gadlin, few scholars have focused on the relationship between these two realms. Perhaps this is because the two realms, now spatially divided and functionally separated, are assumed to be culturally free of each other as well. And perhaps this is why we tend to dissociate our ideas about the family from our ideas about the commodity frontier.
But these two realms are not at all separate. Culturally speaking, they ricochet off each other continually. As a cultural idea, commodification bounces from marketplace to home and back again. We buy something at the store. We bring it home. We compare what we have at home with what we bought. That comparison leads us to reappraise what we have at home. We make something at home. We go to the store. We compare what we think of buying with what we make at home. The reappraisal works the other way. In this way, events on the “frontier” are continually having their effect back home and vice versa.
We like to think of home as a haven in a heartless world, a benign sphere safely separate from the dangerous and hostile world outside or—a related idea—we see the family as a place of emotional expressivity separate from the emotionless, depersonalized world of the marketplace. As Zelizer has so beautifully shown, we have clearly different images of each. At home we act out of love. We are not cold and impersonal like people in the marketplace. And contrariwise, in the market, we say, we judge people on professional grounds. We don’t let personal loyalties interfere. Each image is used as a foil, as the negative, as the “not” of the other—as in the ego defense of splitting.
Yet in my research on a Fortune 500 company, reported in The Time Bind, I discovered a number of managers who said that they brought home management tips that helped them smoothly run their homes. And sometimes people described themselves using work imagery. One man, humorously, spoke of having a “total quality” marriage, and another, seriously, spoke of a good family as like a “high productivity team.” One man even explained that he improved his marriage by realizing that his wife was his primary “customer.”26 The roles and relationships of the office became benchmarks for
those at home. For example, one married mother of three described the following:
I had my husband’s parents and aunt and uncle for a week at our summer cabin. It’s rather small, and it rained most of the week except for Saturday and Sunday. And my mother-in-law offered to help me make the meals and helped me clear the dishes. But you know the real work is in figuring out what to eat and shopping. And the nearest store was at some distance. And I began to resent their visit so much I could hardly stand it. You know I ‘t run a bed and
This woman chose a market role—manager of a bed and breakfast—as a measuring rod to appraise the demands made on her as a kinswoman. She measured what she did as an unpaid relative against another picture of life as a paid employee. On the family side of the commodity frontier, she felt she was doing too much and had a right to resent it. On the market side, she imagined, she would have been fairly compensated. In this way, she was tacitly measuring the opportunity costs of not working. She carried the market world with her in her imagination, even as she was cooking in the cabin.27
Other overburdened wives whom I’ve interviewed have said to their husbands, “I’m not your maid.” One very well-to-do grandmother said about spending “too much” time with her own grandchildren, “I’m not their babysitter, you know.”2H
In twenty-five years, it may come to pass that remarks made at home will refer to new hybrid roles—“I’m not your paid hostess/masseuse”—as if’ that role were as normal and ordinary as any other. Or even “I’m not your halfwife,” as if it had attained the moral weight of “wife” on one hand or “secretary” on the other. The market changes our benchmarks.
Through this borrowing from one side to the other of the commodity frontier, society itself expresses ambivalence about the family. Indeed, commodification provides a way in which people individually manage to want and not want certain elements of family life. The existence of such market substitutes becomes a form of societal legitimation for this ambivalence.
To return to the shy millionaire, we can’t know what crossed through the heads of those who replied to his ad. But we do know that five of the seventy students from my class at Berkeley confessed that they wanted to be among them. As one confided, “Since this [questionnaire] is anonymous, I feel like I’d like to respond to this ad. It’s a good deal, I think і crossed out, and over it written “maybe”].” Another said, “I am almost tempted to apply to this ad, except I don’t meet the qualifications.” Yet another replied, “If it’s real, I’d do it,” A number of people disparaged the ad but predicted that some others in the class would happily answer it. “The worst part,” said one, “is that someone who needed the money prob-
ably took him up on his offer.” In his essay on ambivalence, Smelser points out that sometimes we’re ambivalent about our inner fantasies and impulses, and sometimes we’re ambivalent about the real world outside ourselves. The commodity frontier is real, and maybe it’s a good sign if we feel ambivalent about it.