Creating obsolescence of “function” in the Human Body

By: Elizabeth

In The Waste Makers, Vance Packard discusses ‘obsolescence of function’ (the one category he considers, of the three, to be the most legitimate), as an area in which “overtones of manipulation” may still exist. He uses the example of stereo makers intentionally withholding the technological stages of alleged improvement in order to create a controlled marketing system of obsolescence. “After the market for two-channel stereo is saturated, the producers can switch to three-channel stereo.” However Packard notes that at these levels “improvement” may become so vague or negligible as to hardly meet the classification of “functional” improvement: “At these higher levels, however, the obsolescence created is apt to be more of desirability than of function.”

How do these practices carry over to our society’s treatment of the human body and its “functioning”?

It is interesting to consider the way in which these methodologies have pervaded our culture, even to the point of infiltrating (and at this point practically defining) our notions of health and medicine. Our (Western) system of “health,” which, as we all know is at the moment very much a treated as a business, seems to be following the same economic model of women’s fashion as discussed by Packard.

“It is our job to make women unhappy with what they have,” he quotes the chairman of Allied Stores Corporation as saying.

How does this statement pertain to our society’s treatment of women’s health- mental, emotional, and physical?

This past weekend I saw the film ‘Orgasm Inc,’ playing at the Quad theater (right by The New School- on 13th street). The film covers a range of topics but is mostly centered on the creation and subsequent treatment of a “disorder” known as Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD). In this case however, the treatment actually came first. Realizing that Viagra (used to treat the much more definable condition of Male Sexual Dysfunction) could potentially be marketed to females as well, various drug companies set about diagnosing the disease.
However, they quickly ran into a problem- in order for drug research to be approved, a disease must first actually exist.
Not to worry, the same companies quickly began conducting various subjective surveys and studies and before they knew it they had compiled all the numbers they needed to support their theories and Poof! Just a few months later they had successfully created a disorder- FSD.

Now they could go ahead with their drug research and then get on with the marketing!

This film sheds great light on the ways in which the notions of functional obsolescence have pervaded our cultural psyche, now stretching so far as to reach our own bodies, infiltrating the realms of “health” and human “functioning.” In the stereo example given by Packard, he explains that the trade journals were “unable to find any manufacturer who was willing to claim that three-channel stereo was a true technical improvement. But most of them felt the public could easily be influenced by the numbers”

The same turned out to be true for FSD- falling short of proving any definable “improvement,” they relied heavily on (invented) numbers and statistics to fight for their cause. Though the effectiveness of treatment could not be shown (all the pills and creams produced have yet to prove any measurable effect over placebo), the numbers generated enormous buzz and also served to create a (now officially recognized) “disorder”- the first step in marketing a “cure.”

What this film reveals is that sadly in our society today, women’s health seems be following the same economic and psychological trends of women’s fashion. It seems we can always find new ways to “better” ourselves, and when it comes to our health, this is now no longer limited to signing up for gym memberships or buying newer and better exercise machines, mountain bikes, yoga gear, or sneakers that work out our butts while we walk, but has expanded to include pills and treatments for various new found “disorders” of which- with marketers rather than doctors holding the reigns- there seems to be almost an infinite supply.

*Another film I would definitely recommend if you haven’t seen it is Darwin’s Nightmare. Extremely pertinent on many levels to our reading and discussions in class, in particular to practices of waste and reuse as well as the notion of “margins” within a globalized society*

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1 Comment»

  cindypound wrote @

amazing insights! you really took our readings to a totally unexpected place. very cool. not to get too deep into a gender debate here, but the systematic attempt to make women feel insecure for profit motive is so…male. as is the systematic attempt to decouple women from their sexuality and reproductive freedom. but i digress.

darwin’s nightmare is an intense and disturbing film. i actually saw it about 5 years ago but still think about it today. it was a bit hopeless however, not leaving the viewer with much feeling that there was a path to change or any productive intervention points. hence the title “nightmare”, i guess. the pessimist in me fed on the darkness of it, but the part of me that feels that social documentaries should offer some mechanism for audience engagement was frustrated.


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