We are all shills

So, there was this story by Hari Kunzru in the New Yorker a few months ago, and I can’t get it out of my head. It’s told from the perspective of a young, cosmopolitan man. Super hip. Cultural hyper-literate, ironic, stylish. Finds himself at a party talking to another, similar, guy — Raj — about the Raj’s favorite vodka. Turns out, a few paragraphs later that Raj came to the party to promote this new kind of Vodka, and that he is on the payroll of the vodka company.

In other words: he’s a shill.

Suddenly, the narrator is gripped with an existential crisis: is everyone who recommends anything a shill? What if someone recommends a book? or a coffee shop? Are they getting kickbacks, too?

Its a crisis that I think about daily. namely, are our relationships mediated by goods to the extent that who we are is determined — at least partially — by the things we consume and the things we love? And, if that’s the case, is there any way to be culturally engaged and not part of the free word-of-mouth service that we provide daily for everything from restaurants to chairs to pens to computers to candidates?

Is it possible to naively enjoy culture? Or even enjoy culture from an informed standpoint but one that is free of shilling? the narrator reduces himself to paranoia and eventually empties out his whole apartment because everything is tainted.

now, I’m not advocating that — nor am I naive enough to believe that there’s a “free” space outside of economics to enjoy “culture.” But I’m wondering if there isn’t a relationship between pleasure, culture, goods, and economics that is not merely shilling. Or, if, in the final instance, we are all just shills. for someone. or something. all the time.

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