The Trysts of Taste

Considering that the San Francisco Bay Area has one of the world’s densest concentrations of Ph.D.s, it shouldn’t be surprising that retailers appeal to the superior knowledge of the customer base they wish to cultivate. In the end, this approach is no different than marketing medicine for male erectile dysfunction to the men who watch sports on television. But the reason ideological hailing — what Louis Althusser called “interpellation” — works is because it makes people feel surprised when they shouldn’t be. “Who, me?” the flâneur coyly asks as she strolls through the latest gourmet ghetto. “Really, you want my business?” asks the man passing by the independent bookstore.

Flattery ensures maximum impact. Alternative consumption turns on the desire to be different, to stand out from the crowd. Most of the people who’ve frequented Berkeley’s Ah Dorno hair salon over the years have no idea that its German Jewish philosopher namesake did more to advance the critique of mass culture than anyone, nor that he reserved special scorn for American merchants’ penchant for cuteness. But those who are in on the joke delight in the irony, even if they agree with Theodor Adorno that it’s irrational to take pleasure in their own subjugation.

Readers of Thomas Pynchon‘s classic 1966 novella The Crying of Lot 49 can tell you that its title refers to an auction about to take place at the story’s end, the one that promises to resolve its central mystery once and for all. But the answers they’re looking for are, like the Rapture of the Christian Apocalypse, deferred indefinitely. And that’s a hopeful statement about our existence on this planet, because the only thing we can truly count on in life is death and the only meaning we can be sure of is the sort that gets boxed up in a coffin.

What do these associations have to do with selling funky furniture and accessories to the overeducated and underfunded people likely to stop at this North Oakland emporium? It might seem counterproductive for a business to imply that the customer will always already be wrong, that none of us will ever find what we’re looking for until we lose the capacity to look for it. That’s the beauty of the conspiracy of cuteness the store’s name invokes. Most of the people who shop there will do so because of its location, prices and merchandise. But the ones who stop dead in their tracks when they get the reference can have the pleasures of consumption and mock them too. Theirs is a world of secret assignations with their fellow initiates, who share the gift of being able to feel better than everyone else, not because they have more money or can thumb their noses at mortality, but because they are able to observe their earthly strivings from afar, Olympian meddlers in their own carnal affairs.

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