When I try to explain what I studied in college, I use toilet paper as a starting off point. Toilet paper is a commodity. It is something unnecessary in our lives that has adapted into something viewed as essential. We don’t need toilet paper. We need food, water, shelter, and security. Once the basics are met, all else is superfluous. We have conditioned ourselves to believe that the nonessential, like toilet paper, is essential. Toilet paper has become a commodity–something that once did not have value until it evolved into something consumed without much thought.
From toilet paper I then tiptoe into more theoretical terms, as my degree had little to do with toiletries. Toilet paper has become something that we think we need, and so too has culture. Culture is a commodity. We take culture for granted, expecting new variants of it to be produced to feed our pseudo-need. Music isn’t essential, but it is a commodity, part of the culture industry. Culture and toilet paper are not the same, but they are both commodities.
A few weeks ago I was explaining the process of commodification to my ulpan class. I used my toilet paper example. This week, a peer in the same class was telling us about growing up in Venezuela. In Venezuela, there is no toilet paper, he said. There hasn’t been for years. Porque? Because in a country with so much corruption and crime, all the basics aren’t met. Food and security are not guaranteed. There isn’t enough food in the country, my classmate told us, and it isn’t safe. In a place like Venezuela, commodities are luxuries and toilet paper doesn’t exist.