It took an operational anomaly in the unseen workings of the Light Railway Transport (“LRT”) system in Malaysia for the full impact of rampant consumerism to sink into me. On a sunny Thursday morning, I wound my way up a crowded escalator onto an even crowded platform for what was supposed to be my routine 30 minute commute to work. To tide over the tedium of standing within the confines of a railway carriage packed with humanity, I had armed myself with Jonathan Franzen’s collection of essays ironically titled “How to Be Alone”. Since I was steeped in deciphering Franzen’s lament on the demise of the novel in America, it took me quite a while to realize that the mounting mass of waiting commuters was inversely proportionate to the dribble of trains arriving at the station. It was then that I paid attention to the constant electronic chatter assailing the aural workings of the assemblage of people. A sheepish voice was repeatedly informing the frustrated passengers that on account of an “operation control deficiency”, trains were delayed and also that they would spend more time than usual in each station and move at a reduced pace. Even in terms of ‘rail speak’ the announcement was at best, ambiguous, and at worst, totally non-assuring. When in a driverless train, powered by some remote mechanism of which the passengers have no clue, there occurs an “operation control deficiency”, there sure must be reason for some alarm bells to be set off!
2 essays, 26 pages and a multitude of repetitious announcements later, a train (already packed to the rafters) slowly trundled into the station. Competing with an impatient and determined horde, I managed to wriggle myself into one of the 4 compartments. After what seemed like an eternity the train finally lumbered onwards. Where the controls failed, consumerism or commercialism took over without missing a beat. The drab and garbled announcements within the train, apologizing for the aberrant technical glitch were seamlessly replaced by a glib and robotic feminine tone soothingly encouraging everyone to “feel calm and feel ‘Glade’”. While it takes some effort to find calm when one is literally struggling to find one’s footing, it piques curiosity to ascertain how one feels “Glade”. A quick glance at the metallic door of the coach revealed the secret. Those same exhortations were imprinted in an inviting shade of lavender on the inside of the door. Along with the words, was helpfully set out a picture of a Talcum Powder container. While it made prudent sense to dab oneself with talcum powder especially when one was sandwiched between strangers and variegated wafting odors of sweat and exasperation, it was incredulous to realize that even man’s frustrations are ‘endorsed’. I stoically tried to balance myself by reaching out to clutch at a suspended plastic hand railing, when my sight landed upon a small rectangular picture that was embossed onto the handrail. There was a picture of a bright red car and a huge pile of what looked like elongated gold biscuits set out beside the left front wheel of the car. While trying to retain my balance and at the same time trying to retain my footing, I lunged at the dangling support. I learnt that both the car and the pile of gold could be mine provided I spent a disproportionate sum of money on a luxury product, of which I was in no need whatsoever! While the product was an irrelevance, my balance wasn’t, and even the balancing act was ‘sponsored!”
However the rampant reach of commercialism was most evident in the disquieting determination depicted by the passengers even in their respective crammed positions of discomfiture. Bent elbows, craned necks, clenched fingers, slanted heads and other anguished contortions were the voluntary outcomes of trying to keep going a two way communication within and without the train. Samsung Notes, iPhones and various other brands held their owners to ransom as they in turn valiantly refused to be separated even for a few idle seconds from their ubiquitous rectangular possession. The most powerful capitalist conglomerates had stamped their proprietary claim even on cramp and confinement! It was indeed a surreal sight to see people lost to the wares of technology oblivious even to their physical constraints. The undisguised rage of a middle aged man when his mobile phone signal was lost for a few seconds encapsulated the mighty tentacles of mercantilism as he first cast a repugnant look at his instrument before letting loose a barrage of muttered expletives. Even the inanimate railway stations were in the firm vice like grip of sponsorship. While the hitherto simplistic sounding Bangsar was now “Bank Rakyat Bangsar”, Universiti (not a misspelt word) was now KL Gateway Universiti, a homage to a sprawling new Mall readying itself for a grand inauguration on the 1st of March, 2017. This is the same consumerism that has resulted in the A1 Ring hosting racing events in Spielberg being renamed the Red Bull Ring and the Oval Cricket Ground in England transforming itself into the KIA Oval. In an ever advancing technological world, we seem to have stumbled at a crucial juncture before losing our way. Identification is now a futile exercise unless packaged into a glamorous exercise of branding. An exercise that takes no prisoners and brooks no interference. Art, aesthetics and Science are all showboating spectacles and handmaidens of advertisement, marketing and promotion. Sporting endeavours are tied to corporate blandishments (every boundary scored by Virat Kohli is a Karbonn ‘Kamaal’ shot while every poetic Federer forehand is a ‘Rolex’ moment), the field of medical R&D is replete with the largesse and associated piggy backing of gigantic pharma companies, and even the day to day necessities consumed by the world population have unique name tags.
The great Greek philosopher, Aristole coined the term “Telos” to describe the study of purposiveness, or the study of objects with a view to their aims, intentions and purposes. The world today seems to have totally embraced a non-teleological purport and philosophy, whereby the underlying purposiveness of an object is completely cast away in a disdainful matter-of-fact manner. While we are in a position to enjoy the best that materialism can offer, we seem to have surrendered ourselves to a Faustian bargain. In exchange for superficial and material possessions, we have willingly consented to have our identities stolen.
As the train finally disgorged me along with a stream of other passengers intently peering at their cell phone screens, the unseen lady continued to spur the remaining passengers in the train to “Be calm and Be Glade”.