I managed though to scotch the argument about burgers by bringing up my Volkswagen theory. This is a general theory that I have applied on different occasions to express my concern with the proliferation of objects or items that all do the same thing. I used it for example to critique all those different kinds of cameras I had begun to see or all those different kinds of watches. So I applied it to the burger and said I didn’t understand why we didn’t have just One Burger. What the hell was the difference? A burger was a burger was a burger, wasn’t it. Why not a sort of Volksburger for all the people?
Man, you would have thought I advocated killing the Pope or something. No, they insisted; a Mac’s burger was not the same as a Jack’s burger, and neither of those were the same as a Carl’s Junior, and nothing matched Burger King burger. They weren’t just amazed at my apparent stupidity but a little bit angry. A Volksburger seemed to them down right Un-American. Inside listening to them, I had one of my too frequent what am I doing here and who are these people moments. For these young people, I felt, with a sinking heart, freedom was the freedom to pick, buy, and eat the burger of your choice.
This was some time in the early 90’s and looking back I can now see that I was already dealing with the influence of consumerism. My Volksburger theory ran completely contrary to that proliferation of objects that constitutes choice in the consumer society. While communism was not the bug-a-boo it had once been, I, as an advocate of the Volksburger, seemed to advocate a drab sort of society where everybody wore the same thing—usually something brown and sack like—and were all really automatons because they ate the same burger. Unlike us–I mean Americans–who wear all sorts of different things and can choose freely among a vast array of possible burgers.
My concern with the development of the individual didn’t arise directly out of such episodes. The idea had been with me long before that and is related to my own personal history. Hell, the title of my dissertation was “Romantic Thought: Education and Alienation” (1980). At that time, I had thought I would be a teacher of literature, but looking now at the title of my dissertation, I think I was unconsciously, and semi-consciously, concerned with the effects of education and its possible role in the development of the individual. Maybe Hegel’s Bildugn.
Perhaps I am projecting, as is always possible, but episodes like this (multiply by a 100 or so) led me, rather despairingly, to feel that these young people actually believed that one’s individuality was somehow related to things that one purchased and sometimes ate. I just didn’t think a person could buy individuality. It didn’t come along with an enlarged bank account. I thought and still do, vaguely I admit, that individuality was not a given. One was not born it; it was not a right of the individual. One became an individual—if that’s what one wanted to become—and becoming one was a lot of hard work. The labor of the negative, as Hegel might have said.