The value of meaning; or, the meaning of value

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Noël à Honfleur – Photo by Montag

It’s that time of year again.

I’m on auto-pilot. I’m launching into a familiar routine of buying presents, arranging who I’m going to stay with, and the parties I’ll be going to. Sadly as I get older, wild soirees are becoming less of a feature of the festive season. There are exceptions – my gatecrashing of a New Years Eve houseparty last year after perhaps one too many glasses of Sauvignon Blanc at an earlier formal do, was a welcome return to youthful irresponsibility.

Already I digress. What I want to say is that occasionally, during this orgy of consumerism and increasingly forced bonhomie, I stop to think of what it’s all about. When I do that I am struck at how alien our present society can sometimes be to even those like me, who grew up in the third quarter of the twentieth century.

Obviously, Christmas is at root a Christian religious festival concerned with celebrating the earthly manifestation of a deity. I would imagine that in times past it was this aspect that primarily determined the celebrations around this event. However now that atheism, or at least rationalist agnosticism, informs the ontology of most in our society, I’ll say little more about this.

Instead, let us fast forward to the Victorian era, to the time of Charles Dickens. It has often been said that the origins of the modern Christmas can be detected in the work of this 19th century author (I think that what is actually meant by this is that the seeds of modern Christmas can be found within the pages of A Christmas Carol specifically). In other words; Dickens as the apostle of the humanist Christmas.

Naturally Dickens himself was a product of his time and would have been influenced by the social constructions that were prevalent when he was writing. These constructions would have had much more of a Christian flavour than we can probably imagine today. Despite this, many of the themes in A Christmas Carol will be familiar to those who celebrate our modern materialistic Christmas. These include bonhomie, altruism, goodwill to all men (and women!), and sociability.

This common ground between then and now therefore allows for an easy transformation of these Dickensian values into the modern idea of Christmas partying, substantial expenditure on others, jolliness (getting drunk) and sociability (getting drunk).

A Christmas Carol is secular (with a little bit of metaphysical ghostliness thrown in). Due to the strong humanist element, the story contains deeply ethical undertones. “Don’t be greedy”, “don’t be selfish”, “be genuinely nice to other people”, “don’t be like Messrs Scrooge and Marley, thinking only of themselves and profit”. So while we’re all out getting pissed and shouting “Merry Christmas” to other revellers, we perhaps see ourselves as being infused with the spirit of Bob Cratchet and not horrible old Ebeneezer.

Perhaps, however, if we examine our actions in a way that the existentialists would look approvingly upon (that is, being honest and authentic and taking responsibility for our actions) we may conclude that we are not in fact shouting the “Merry Christmas” greeting beloved of Bob Cratchet and his humble family. Perhaps the words are the same, but in our age the meaning is rather more similar to the “bah humbug” that tripped easily from the lips of Scrooge.

Certainly the technology, retail and other brands that we genuflect before are all in fact super-Scrooges. The organisations behind these are bean counters and money saving experts par excellence. Scrooge could only dream of being able to utilise their super-efficient corporate methods that allow them to powerfully market to us, while reducing their cost base (for example, shirking tax responsibilities). Even worse, they appear to be completely blind to the considerable irony of the way in which they seek to profit from our desire to live the Christmas ideals, such as Dickens described, at this time of year.

These multinational corporations interpret Christmas thus:

  • Do you want to be altruistic? Here, buy your mother this Bayliss hair curler, with steam activated springy bits. A snip at only forty seven ninety nine.
  • Fancy joining in with the Christmas bonhomie? Here, look – Grants whisky is aged over barrels for twelve years for that oaky, smoky flavour – enjoy it with your friends this Christmas.
  • As for sociability – well, every day I walk past a full-sized poster advert at Tottenham Court Road tube station. It features a young foxy type smiling directly at the camera looking pleased as punch in her new, desirous red dress. The huge headline proudly announces “#DRESSMAS”. So there you go. There is your sociability. Buy this dress, go out, and get all the attention that your avaricious little heart desires.

Furthermore, once upon a time the advertisers would only strike up their annoying chorus somewhere in mid-December, but nowadays it’s getting earlier and earlier – I’m writing this in November. The advertising-dependent commercial television channels are dancing to their tune; only last weekend, wife and I were commenting upon the number of Christmas films being shown on the propaganda pane (that’s the TV to you) in mid- to late November.

None of this does anything of course to encourage true altruism, or bonhomie, or real goodwill to all men (and women). Quite the opposite in fact. It encourages us to be ridiculously self-centred and egotistic. If I can’t do sociability without a bottle of Grants 12 year old whisky then I’m seriously fucked. A half-litre of Bells or even some bubbling home brew would do the job just as well. You know as well as I, that real sociability doesn’t give an airborne copulation about what you’re drinking, it’s all about what you have to say and share and give.

And then finally, Christmas day in the modern world is an orgy of gluttony with perhaps a respite (a partial one) from the attack of the marketers. It’s only partial because we’ll still be watching the telly and browsing the net, where the moneymen will continue to reach out to the less edifying parts of our natures. To be fair there are sometimes nice bits, but too often it’s all about the things not the people.

The older meaning of that which we still call Christmas, but which is utterly transformed from the Christian or the rationalist humanist version, was genuine, chosen and well-considered generosity to others (not necessarily fiscal or materialistic – how about visiting that elderly neighbour?). It was a thoughtful elevation of the spirit beyond the everyday and mundane modes of survival. There still is a kind of magic if one reaches out to others in a genuine act of selflessness. That magic is the thing about Christmas that made it seem really special once upon a time. A residue of this still exists, mainly in certain elements of the population, and occasionally and infrequently in the mass media.

To our new idols – that is the brands and the retailers that we have come to love – there is only one important aspect of Christmas. That aspect is situated in value in the financial sense. Their advertising campaigns and strategies at this time of year are geared towards one thing only: increasing profit. They encourage those behaviours of ours that help them to achieve that end, and in doing so they attenuate the other myriad values that can make us feel good about ourselves. I mean, there are so many non-materialistic values: family values, humanist values, Christian values. To the corporations, however, these are only important in that they can lead us to behave in ways that will satisfy their need for more wealth, more growth, more power.

Did somebody say bah humbug?

Yes, those to whom we look up to today, Apple, Nike, Nintendo, are only chasing that financial aspect of value – despite whatever shiny, creative marketing strategies they unleash upon us. I don’t blame them – that is the only goal of capitalism after all. However, through this unrestrained and unregulated focus on wealth, they are swallowing up the important meanings that we hold in relation to the other type of values. They saddle their trinkets to the genuine meanings that we hold in relation to our world. They then ride whatever Zeitgeist, or whatever deeply held conviction of ours to the city of profit. When the original meaning, like an ageing carthorse, has outlived its usefulness, they discard it – a worn out empty vehicle – for the next new shiny thing.

It’s like #DRESSMAS – I mean Christmas. I think that the old meanings of this holiday were incredibly valuable. It was that magic created between people sharing something authentic, honest, giving and human about themselves. The deep meanings behind this particular yearly festival enabled all of this, and are still incredibly valuable to us as human beings and human societies. Sadly such meanings are dying. They are being eroded by actions such as the manipulative looping of Christmas songs in stores; that is by the malign grafting of selfish corporate strategies onto sentiments originally more altruistic and genuine in nature.

So this is Christmas John, but I’m afraid that in this and other aspects of our lives, true meaning, and (non-fiscal) value will become increasingly co-opted by the brands. The once hippie Glastonbury festival is now fodder for the corporates. Indeed I once wrote the foreword to a poetry anthology in which I asked if there remained any artform that hadn’t been co-opted for the sake of kudos or profit. I went on to argue that poetry was so uncool, that marketers had yet to mine it. The point is, they find what’s valuable to us, even the once-sombre religious festivals of Christmas and Easter, and they graft to it their fiscally-focused strategies such that the original meaning fades into oblivion in a generation or two.

I’m afraid that when this process of self-cannibalisation is complete, life for homo sapiens will be very bleak indeed. Robbed of that which makes existence truly wondrous, and with the quiet whisper of human magic drowned out by the incessant blaring of the capitalist code, perhaps only then will we regretfully understand everything we need to know about the meaning of value and the value of meaning.

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