Sunday, May 18, 2008

On the Cards

I found myself in a well-known chemist's (or drugstore depending on your ethnic bias) the other day stocking up on dental floss, vitamin tablets and prophylactics. Upon reaching the front of the checkout queue, the charming young lady cashier ran my items through and then asked me if I had a member's card. I replied in the negative and then pondered for a moment upon the full import of her question.

So, on our advertising fueled simulation of a planet, our endless quest for a slice of petty bourgeois exclusivity and VIP kudos means that it is now actually possible to become a member of a chemist's shop. What could this mean? Perhaps there is an exclusive members' lounge above the chemist where one can play billiards, smoke Cuban cigars and drink shot glasses of cough mixture.

Increasingly though, many stores are offering membership and exclusive offers to any Tom, Dick or Harry who walk through the door and can be stuffed to spend 10 minutes filling in an application form. Exclusive benefits that can be accrued from membership of said shops include an endless bombardment of e-mail spam trailing special offers and a wallet so bulging with useless plastic cards that you can hardly shoehorn the thing into your Levis.

If this trend continues I'll no doubt soon find myself leaning against a Kaki Lima filling in a form to become an exclusive member of Pak Djoko's Sate Ayam Club whilst he grills my sticks and enters my e-mail address into his Nokia.

Why, increasingly, do we fall for this stuff? Why are we so mesmerized by late capitalism's technological confidence trick of the bogus utopia? Why do we become members of supermarkets and covet objects of desire that we think will portend our arrival into an exclusive consumer's 'A' league? You all know what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about the type of person who says, "Oh yes, I drive a Honda Jazz Splash edition. They were made in a limited run of 1,790,000 I believe."

Why do we fall for the endless advertising propaganda that causes us to overlay the tawdriest and most mundane of production line tat with civilized society's most hallowed ideals of refinement and sophistication? Is this the spiritual vacuum we live in? A vacuum in which the ultimate symbol of communicative empowerment, the mobile phone, has ironically become, in this country at least, a status symbol capable of alienating those who can afford the latest models from those who can't; an instant badge of perceived position demarcating social class.

For me though, the most socially sinister manifestation of our upwardly mobile consumerist aspirations are the gated communities or the exclusive housing Kompleks as they are known here. In the fortress enclave of the Kompleks our sterile dreams of material gratification are buttressed a pathological fear of the plebs outside, the broader community at large and of a globe falling apart around our ears.

The Sat Pam security guards sit in their sentry boxes controlling CCTV cameras and lockable barriers and delineate Kafkaesque boundaries of social segregation. Tenants merely have to step into their gas guzzling SUVs and head to their exclusive business parks and classy shopping malls, all the while protected and cosseted from the human flotsam living a hand to mouth existence on the streets.

During a recent visit to one of these upmarket housing complexes, my taxi was stopped and was subjected to the usual cursory bomb search whilst I myself was questioned by a uniformed security man. Who had I come to see? Did I have an appointment (I didn't, which didn't really seem to help matters). I felt like I was trying to get into the Pentagon. And me! A respectable urbane columnist from the Jakarta Post! Harangued by a man in an ill fitting white shirt decorated with nonsensical epaulettes. Didn't he know who I was?! I felt like bristling with indignation at the man's impudence. If only I had enrolled at the chemist's earlier I would have had a card to have shown him.

This continuing privatization of public space fills me with despondency as it seems to play to our most selfish and snobbish instincts. A smile returned to my face however when I remembered an anecdote I once read concerning the late British comedian Peter Cook. Our man was confronted with a puffed up diner trying to get into his trendy exclusive comedy club one evening. "What do you mean you haven't got a table for me?" He barked at the Maitre D’, "Do you know who I am?" Cook, who was standing nearby at the time, made straight for the club's PA system. "This is a public announcement," he intoned over the microphone. "There appears to be a man at reception who doesn't know who he is. If anyone recognizes this man could they please contact a member of staff."

Who am I? Will anyone recognize me? Well they will once I've applied for my Indo-Maret Platinum Card. Then I will have arrived at the top table.