PRINT November 1990


the Potlatch Principle

THE U.S. [IS] BECOMING the greatest dispenser of science-fiction entertainments,” remarks a character in Saul Bellow’s 1970 bestseller, Mr. Sammler’s Planet. The speaker, who is a physicist, is specifically thinking of the Apollo moon mission, not sci-fi per se. Still, conversant as we are with the realm of the spectacular, why be literal in our notions of “science fiction” or “entertainment”?

The most other-directed of world powers, America has played to the grandstand at least since the end of World War II. It’s not just the space race and the missile race that were staged for an audience. Hiroshima/Nagasaki and the Vietnam War were the most drastic science-fiction extravaganzas ever devised, weakly echoed by the disaster movies of the early ’70s. So, too, the Reaganmania of the mid ’80s captivated much of the world—our national borrowing binge lit the skies with a display as incandescent, ephemeral, and sulfurously star-spangled as a fireworks show on the Fourth of July.

With its limitless abundance, America was born to be strip-mined. Want more, waste more—it’s virtually a religious duty. Of course, as Thorstein Veblen theorized it nearly a century ago in The Theory of the Leisure Class, the concept of economic “waste” is purely subjective: “Whatever form of expenditure the consumer chooses, or whatever end he seeks in making his choice, has utility to him by virtue of his preference.” Thus, whatever it does or does not reveal about the mysteries of the universe, the $1.5 billion Hubble telescope—rendered inoperative by a too-thin penny washer—has already served to illustrate the power of bureaucratic profligacy by spectacularizing that old saw, “for-want-of-a-nail-the-war-was-lost.” Only a superpower, or rather only the Superduperpower, can squander in quite this fashion—it is a particular form of conspicuous consumption, an example of heedless display that, with an appropriation from the Kwakiutl Indians of the Pacific Northwest, we might term the Potlatch Principle.

The Kwakiutl potlatch—a complex ceremony that reached its most delirious form late in the last century, with the introduction of cheap manufactured articles into the native economy—involved the ostentatious and theatrical distribution of property to safeguard and dramatize on individual’s social position. Through the spectacular disposal of personal wealth, the initiator of the potlatch at once validated a hereditary claim to an exalted position within the tribe and protected himself against the claims of his rivals. According to Franz Boas, the pioneer anthropologist who wrote several monographs on the Kwakiutl, the driving dream of the Kwakiutl elite was “the limitless pursuit of gaining social prestige and of holding on to what has been gained,” combined with an “intense feeling of inferiority and shame if even the slightest part of prestige [was] lost.”

The sting of lost prestige is scarcely restricted to the Kwakiutl. From the perspective of our own political establishment, it was a happy coincidence that our onetime client Saddam Hussein chose to invade Kuwait just as the bill for the ’80s fireworks show was coming due. Potlatch time! Never mind that, once military and foreign-aid costs were figured in, the price of imported oil was already something like $80 per barrel. The grandiose Operation Desert Shield, whose announced goal is to defend the American “way of life” and whose $40 million plus daily tab is running a bit less than the budget for the Hollywood potlatch Die Hard II, is offering a massive diversion from deficit, depression, and the deferred costs of deregulation—most spectacularly in the form of the ever-deferred, constantly escalating Savings and Loan bailout.

The potlatch is a contest between two rivals and like all contests it presupposes an audience. The cost of Operation Desert Shield has been dramatized in numerous ways at every stage of the crisis—even as the constant reiteration of the name “Baghdad” suggests the gloriously wasteful wide-screen Egyptian-Roman-Mesopotamian epics of the Quo Vadis to Cleopatra era. At first, media attention was focused on President Bush’s ostentatiously workaholic vacation—complete with his daily trips on a gas-guzzling “cigarette” speedboat. Once summer ended, however, the operation came to resemble a March of Dimes or Muscular Dystrophy telethon in which the plight of hapless refugees and hostages was broadcast worldwide, as the U.S. sought to wring ever greater contributions from the very Saudis, Kuwaitis, Japanese, Germans, Dutch, Canadians, et al., who had been underwriting the U.S. economy right along.

This out-front economic aspect brings Operation Desert Shield closer to the potlatch spirit than even Vietnam. For, as the anthropologist Helen Codere points out, property received in o potlatch is scarcely a “free and wanton gift.” The recipient is “not at liberty to refuse it,” while accepting the gift obligates him to make an even more sensational return at subsequent potlatches. The potlatch system raises money-lending, the extension of credit, and capital investment to a form of dreamlike delirium as the participants alternately become debtors and creditors for amounts that increase at a geometric rate. (Boas maintained that in one Kwakiutl village of some 150 inhabitants, where only 400 blankets existed, debts were owed to the amount of 75,000 blankets!)

It would be ridiculous to predict the status of Operation Desert Shield by the time this reaches print—although it seems likely that an expensive standoff can continue for some time. Still, the ultimate logic of the potlatch is less the redistribution of wealth than its destruction. Indeed, for the Kwakiutl, the “reckless”—by which they meant “profitless”—annihilation of property represented the summit of social ambition. The most glorious of all potlatches were those during which actual destruction occurred—the so-called “grease feasts” in which box after box of oulachen oil was torched, and the fire burned so furiously it would singe spectators’ clothing and set the roof boards ablaze.

A “grease feast” in the Gulf? Call it the “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Blame it on an unconscious desire to see the oil fields aflame—a bit more impressive than one of those chemical fires in New Jersey—and have it out, this time for good. After all, they have oil to burn, and so do we.

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum. On leave as film columnist for The Village Voice, he is working on a book on American movies and politics.