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Plug Something or Die 

When the world's leaking, you gotta plug it. I'm not sure what plumber in the past uttered those unforgettable words, but it all came back to me when a friend from Boulder wrote to me that I should plug some recent book. Not long after that, there came another message, asking me if I might plug some other book, and then one after another, for about a week, people wrote and called with urgent requests for "plugging" some time-consuming object. Few things irritate me more than requests to use my little public forum to plug this or that. First of all, if I like something, I'll plug it unbidden or even do an unasked-for tie-in product-placement.

There is something else going on here, though, and it's a major symptom of the contemporary sickness of marketing. People won't ask you, like they used to, to "take a look" at something to see if you like it or not. They just assume that, since they know you, you'll plug whatever it is. It wasn't so long ago, it seems, that people were just a slight bit ashamed of trying to get you to sell something. For the longest time, it was a no-no to push your friends to sell stuff for you because it was presumed that your friends might think that you valued your racket above the friendship.

But then the world changed. I'm not sure when it changed, but it suddenly became OK to sell anything to anybody and through anybody, to push products shamelessly, to enlist your friends in your hustling schemes, to promote, to spam, to do anything to get the crap out there, even to buy ad space on your own skin and to sell your mother at a discount. What changed was the world, which went from being a seemingly random and possibly liberating cluster of events to being a modular Rube Goldbergesque machine through which flow only products linked to one another by tubular marketing. Public and private forums, including friendship (which is the most private of forums), became occasions to sell things. All forms of talk, including dialogue and conversation, began existing solely for the purpose of plugging stuff. At the levers of the suddenly modular machine of public discourse there scurried armies of salesmen (or "marketing" people) doing all they could to leach spontaneity out of discourse. The exchange of spontaneous content, with its sense of adventure and common welfare, disappeared to make room for contents that waited pre-packaged just outside the forum.

I defy you to find now a single talk show on radio or television, private or public, that doesn't have a commercial tie. There is nothing left in the world of public expression today that does not serve a product. What's more, an exchange devoid of commercial interest seems empty. Product-placement has become the equivalent of animation: the product is like the engine that animates the event -- once it is placed at the center of the event it makes the whole thing, including the people, come to life. Plugging has become compulsory. Everyone must plug something at all times under threat of having the world leak away. There is nothing worse than being unplugged. Unplugged, you'll leak away and cease to exist. Which makes the plumber of yore a bigger philosopher than he knew.

Unasked-for tie-in product placement: On Jan. 15, at Faulkner Books (624 Pirate's Alley, 843-722-6795), from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., I will read from and sign my new book, New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing from the City.


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