Step Right Up!

Getting heady with experience

My apartment’s recent provision of unasked-for swag has been followed by opportunities to have local restaurants deliver meals to the building. It’s an admittedly great way to support small businesses. But it’s just—could they stop hyping this project as an “experience”—as in, make sure to get your order in by the deadline so you won’t miss out on this unique experience?

Unique, sure, in terms of inviting to the lobby a bunch of residents, impaired in their mask-wearing abilities, to pick up their duck-fat fries and gourmet sandwiches, mingling and gabbing all the while in the middle of a rapidly evolving viral disaster. Unique, perhaps, in trying some new food (if you still have the financial means to afford it). Or singular in making your Instagram post of foil-wrapped fare look more alluring than a zillion other photos meant to signal to viewers that they’ve missed out on some miraculous one-time event. But at what point did we start turning financial transactions into experiences—or rather, at what point did we start thinking this sort of phrasing or “value proposition”(1) wouldn’t make us snort in disdain?

The trend started earlier than I’d expected, at least where overt mention of experience is concerned. This 1998 article in the Harvard Business Review does get technical about the “transition from selling services to selling experiences,” and businesses’ need to “upgrade their offerings to the next stage of economic value.” Wharton Magazine is still talking about the long-running rage in 2013, its author adding a sliver of common sense with the assertion, “I go to a shop to buy a shirt—not an experience…my perceived value is in the shirt, not the experience of buying it. The seller has to focus only on their value proposition: the shirt and how it is sold.” I could spin off and kvetch heartily about viewing a material thing (the shirt) as an abstract idea (the stomach-churning “value proposition”), but I think you get the point.

The Rawleigh Man. Public domain image courtesy Stephenson County Historical Society and Wikimedia Commons.

The other day, I thought I might have found a partner in my semantic grumbling. American philosopher John Dewey explored pretty much everything under the sun, so it should be no surprise that he also attempted to figure out what an experience was, as opposed to things being (generally passively) experienced. As he says in Art and Experience,

Experience occurs continuously, because the interaction of live creature and environing conditions is involved in the very process of living… Oftentimes, however… Things are experienced but not in such a way that they are composed into an experience… we have an experience when the material experienced runs its course to fulfillment.

To fulfillment: in other words, when “A piece of work is finished in a way that is satisfactory; a problem receives its solution; a game is played through.” And lo and behold, after listing a number of other examples, Dewey even tells us that such fulfillment could occur when “eating a meal… is so rounded out that its close is a consummation and not a cessation.”(2)

Hmm. So maybe I was too hasty in making fun of the marketing hype. The process of ordering a meal online, having to retrieve it and take the elevator back up to your lodgings without getting COVID, eating your hip cuisine, and probably letting your network know all about it, does seem to be a course of action that begins with a certain intention (receiving and eating food), and ends when that intention has been fulfilled. But wait: we’ve been told this procedure is unique, and have been led to believe that it will be different from every other time we’ve had food delivered and have polished it off on the couch. Maybe that uniqueness comes in, as mentioned, by the environmental conditions in which it’s taking place, or with the knowledge you’re doing something to help a local business.

Maybe the pandemic conditions really do qualify the whole process as an experience, since Dewey also asserted that “There is… an element of undergoing, of suffering in its large sense, in every experience. Otherwise there would be no taking in of what preceded.” The author shies away a bit from describing what exactly “suffering” means, other than that the emotions are involved, that the

“taking in” in any vital experience is something more than placing something on the top of consciousness over what was previously known. It involves reconstruction which may be painful… there are few intense esthetic experiences that are wholly gleeful. They are certainly not to be characterized as amusing,

although “the complete perception” of the whole experience “is enjoyed.”(3)

So, does this unique experience for which I should thank my apartment manager only count as an experience if, while engaging in it, I keep at the front of my mind the seriousness of the conditions in which we find ourselves, the risk the restauranteurs and their staff are running just to prepare and deliver this food, the danger to which we’re subjecting ourselves and others by breathing in the same air? I guess all of that gloomy recognition would enhance the uniqueness of the whole situation. Whether or not, though, all or any of the customers enjoying their sriracha chicken are setting aside any thought for these issues is quite another matter. (I’m prone to say, based merely on observation of all the flippant behavior in this particular high-rise since March, that they’re not.)

But much to my despair, I think I’m going to have to cede defeat on this occasion. At least on Dewey’s terms, I’m going to have to allow for the possibility that this food ordering program can’t necessarily be disqualified as an experience. I’m not totally going to give up the fight, though; I still feel confident there’s a case to be made against advertising/marketing practices that assume we’re gullible enough to believe home delivery of a taco is in itself an earth-shattering thing, an event that brings us to our knees in gratitude for its benevolent providers.(4) While I ponder how to make that particular case, though, enjoy your meal, hopefully without too much suffering.

(1) I’ll admit that using that phrase made me throw up a little.

(2) John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Capricorn Books, 1934/1958), 35.

(3) Dewey, 41.

(4) Maybe in the future, I’ll explore how or whether advertising feeds into and is influenced by, say, news media’s cheapening of concepts and characters, such as the notion of tragedy (to describe a car crash, for example) or the figure of a hero (used to designate someone who simply died in an accident).