An Amazon problem

NEW JERSEY - America has an Amazon problem. It is a problem of conservation and deforestation. In this case, however, the question is the conservation of literary culture, as well as the wholesale deforestation of literacy.

Lee Siegel, O Estado de S.Paulo

17 de junho de 2012 | 01h00

Founded in 1994 and now the world's largest online retail organization, Amazon.com represents a new turn in the history of capitalism. Marx argued that capitalism "reifies" human desire into objects to be bought and sold. How quaint. Amazon transforms things into feelings. The consumer is brought into something like a love relationship with Amazon's merchandise through his or her direct involvement in Amazon's universe. The shopper reviews the object of his desire, ranks it, "likes" it on Facebook and on various other social networking sites. Some of the reviews run to thousands of words; they approach the level of memoir.

Amazon does not own the means of production of the things it sells-not yet, anyway. It has gone one step beyond that. The internet giant has achieved ownership of American desire. And through its manipulation of the customer's intimate emotional involvement with Amazon's transactions, it has turned desire itself into the primary means of production. Amazon will, literally, sell you just about anything you want. All you have to do is express your desire on Amazon. Presto! Your desire is satisfied.

Through its cannibalizing and obliteration of its rivals by undercutting their prices to a radical extent, Amazon has very nearly attained its imperial ambitions. Soon every American will go only to Amazon to purchase reality, piece by piece. Soon the word "Amazon" will be synonymous with every type of desire. Do you want to stop sneezing? Think "Amazon." Are you swept into a beautiful trance by a particular memory: "Amazon" was there. I envision two lovers swooning together in a shared moment of ecstasy: "Amazon!" they sigh. Amazon is becoming consciousness itself.

 

One of the consequences of this empire of retail consciousness is an Ovidian blurring of desire. One object for sale is the equivalent of another. This is not very consequential when it comes to washing machines or flatscreen TVs, but it is wholly destructive when it is a question of books. The fact is that Amazon loses money by selling books. The company uses books only to lure customers into buying their various e-readers, and into buying other wares, like washing machines and flatscreen TVs, which is where Amazon makes its real profits. Sometimes Amazon even gives books away for free, in the form of ebooks.

In the process, books lose their character as unique vessels of knowledge, experience and feeling. Books become just like any other piece of merchandise. Most things can become the moral equivalent of other things without negative consequences, but books cannot-they are not things per se, but inestimable, infinitely unfolding meanings and values that are stored in a thing. Strangely, Amazon sells books the way American banks sold derivatives, thus causing America's economic meltdown in 2008. Like derivatives, books are bundled by Amazon into packages with other things that are completely unlike books. No wonder the company is called Amazon. Like the mighty river, it sweeps away the precious boundaries between the physical objects that make up our complex reality.

In a few years, Amazon will either put the major American book publishers out of business-by underpricing them out of existence and by monopolizing distribution-or it will force them to radically shrink themselves into some other form. If the so-called "Big Six" publishers do reduce their operations, they will also have to pay far smaller advances to authors. This means that authors will no longer be able to support themselves by their writing. They will have to get "normal" jobs. So just as books will have become mere units of exchange, writers will lose their precious space of reflective detachment as they also become mere units of exchange in the marketplace. Everything and everybody will have been monetized. Woe unto us all, cry the book publishers.

Yet the book publishers have only themselves to blame.

About thirty years ago, when mostly European conglomerates bought up 80 percent of American publishing, the profit margins were transformed. (Yes, 80 percent of American book publishing is owned by foreign companies, mostly German.) A fairly quaint industry, which had always attracted bookish English majors and had always had as its business model an old-fashioned convention of selling an object for a modest profit, now got caught up in the go-go growth market of the 1980s. The criterion of success was shifted from profit to growth. That was when the book, as an object of integrity, began to give way to the packaging of a book, to considerations of author appearance, buzzy content, specialized sensationalist genres of affliction, memoir, and so forth. The ethos of growth demands that objects lose their borders. Borders are an impediment to growth. Amazon's Ovidian blurring of boundaries was the next inevitable step.

So was its emphasis on growth over profits. Amazon is really the reductio ad absurdum of capitalism, in which the seller consumers itself as it ignores making money for the sake of continuing to expand. Profits no longer matter. Only fungibility matters. No thing can have a separate identity from another thing. Of course as in Ovid, desire cannot be endless and the specificity of things asserts itself. The nubile young girl becomes a tree. Infinitely expanding desire hits a brick wall. The bills come due. The debt becomes unmanageable. The bubble bursts and the market collapses.

One of the reigning paradoxes of American life now is that, at a time of a slowly growing American economy, Amazon's maniacal emphasis on growth over profits could well put an end to national growth altogether, as the gigantic company makes itself the only retailer left standing and occupies more and more of the economy. If Amazon goes bust, a lot of the economy will go bust. The challenge then will be how to turn a washing machine back into "Anna Karenina."

 

Leia a versão em português do texto de Lee Siegel.

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