Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Heavy Lifting

When I was in eighth grade, I was falsely accused of shoplifting at a major trendy chain store in Greenwich Village. To this day I've no clue as to how this transpired: we'd checked our bags and I didn't have any pockets, and a cursory search of me would have revealed that the accusation was ridiculous. But a weird, malicious clerk kicked me and my friend out of the store with the words "I saw what you did, now get out while you still can," and it was years before I developed the courage to enter that location again.

I had, at that point, shoplifted a few times. I was learning two things for most of eighth grade: how to be alone and how to conform. Two very popular girls in my class had been caught shoplifting from Rite Aid at the beginning of the school year, and for several days it had been the talk of the town; interested in sharing the feelings they must have had, I started to palm small objects here and there, though I wasn't fool enough to try it in a major chain store. All I can recall taking are pieces of quartz from a New Age healing store and numerous mint candies from Morgan's Market, though I believe there were more, always without the company of friends or family. It was a thrill, as is any entitled adolescent's minor-league defiance of authority, and once the thrill was gone—within a year or two—I let it alone.

Last month, though, I learned that a friend has pursued shoplifting from the same chain store rather more recently. Though her experience with it ended rather ignonimously, she described the aforementioned thrill, and added that she finds it a good way to demonstrate the disrespect for authority that has become more and more a part of her nature in recent years. My first reaction was flinching, and while I think I may still flinch, I want to look at why and whether I'm okay with why. The spoiler—but it's not a spoiler, because you obviously know what happens—is Richard Linklater's film School of Rock.

Tyromaven once said that she had difficulty purchasing designer clothing from secondhand stores, though she firmly believes in purchasing clothing from secondhand stores, because it didn't solve the problem she was trying to solve—"I still desire these things." That, to me, is the contradiction inherent to construing shoplifting as sticking it to the Man. In the end, you wind up with the very objects you claim to repudiate. If you succeed as a shoplifter, you have acquired objects, have bucked the tenets of the system, but few people know. And it's still a matter of wanting the objects with you. You have cheated, but not really challenged, the system, and as such are accepting it.

Now the thrill. I'd be a fool and a hypocrite to deny the importance of The Thrill. It's not a throwaway concept, it means something. Particularly when one's talking about defying the Man—it's a source of pleasure. Your shoplifting is not going to do the business much harm, but the energy you feel at discovering your ability to defy the business *could* do it some substantive harm, in the long and abstract run. If you get pleasure from it, you'll aim to discover more ways to get that pleasure; you may aim to share that pleasure, explain it to others, encourage it, and others may just be weird enough to want it even if you don't (see my own eighth-grade inspiration above). And there's something somewhat worthwhile to anything you get pleasure or excitement from that doesn't harm anyone. Shoplifting does harm someone, as I just established in a somewhat circular fashion—which leaves the question being, do we care if that particular harm is done?

Some of School of Rock's funniest moments come when pseudo-burnout rock aficionado Dewey, played by Jack Black, attempts to explain the concept of "sticking it to the Man" to prep-school fourth-graders. Linklater and Mike White's attempt to create a world in which kids have never even heard of the idea (I'd accept their never having heard of the term) is kind of laughable on an outside artistic level, but Black's dialogue and delivery, not to mention the kids' deadpan reactions, are pitch-perfect, and the process by which they take in "sticking it to the Man" as part of their education is also spot-on. However cliched, Linklater does succeed in showing a long-term social change based on one character's devoted, limited viewpoint. What that means, though, is that power can be created by the concept of "sticking it to the Man." They create art, and they create social change in their world, and they change their own lives and Dewey's life. The movie immediately establishes that there's no reason to love the Man, the system that Dewey's roommate Ned has bound himself to, that it has in fact actively damaged people and their relationships and will continue to do so with these students and their families, and as such even Jack Black's mildly illegal/rule-breaking actions are justified in the larger sense.

So given that, in order to shoplift in a socially ethical fashion, you'd have to believe that there's something fundamentally wrong with the existence of The Man—in this particular instance, that is to say, with the existence of the business in question. Do I have a problem with the concept of chain stores in general? I do, if their state today is an inevitable otucome of their existence in a capitalist world. Which is to say, I have a problem with their hegemony. Taking what I have outlined above as true, I'd say shoplifting as a movement could present a challenge to that hegemony. Shoplifting isn't a movement.

In that case, how is individual shoplifting different from, say, an individual recycling? Also, how is what Jack Black's character does different from individual shoplifting? To answer the latter question first, and in trite plotting terms, it's about Dewey's journey, how he begins the film as a selfish person eager to get personal thrill from sticking it to the Man and ends as someone with a concrete understanding of how sticking it to the Man can change the lives of individuals he's come to know and love. As to the former, I'd say recycling is inherently a much more contextualized act. We can more clearly visualize the direct results of our actions on the world, even if that isn't substantive, and it will have some impact (though obviously incredibly minor) in a positive direction no matter what. Whereas decontextualized shoplifting, if there is a possibility of a movement—and I think there could be—might do active damage to it.

Who, then, is for a shoplift-in?


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