General Notes on Consumerism


The Consumption Reader

Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are from the following text:

Clarke, David B., Doel, Marcus A., Housiaux, Kate M.L. (ed.) The Consumption Reader (London & NY: Routledge, 2003).

“General Introduction”


Introducing ‘consumption’ is a daunting task, not simply because there has been an explosion of writing and research on the topic over recent decades, but also because most people already feel they understand the term well enough.

We would like to suggest, however, that consumption always involves much more than simply purchasing, obtaining, and using goods and services. however neat a definition of ‘consumption’ one might offer, consumption itself (so to speak) seems to have different ideas. Consumption invariably spirals out in all directions, affecting how society is structured, how we see ourselves as individuals, how the course of history develops, what the world we live in is like, and so on.

Let us begin by considering the origins of the word. While the English language uses the Latinate term ‘consumption’ far more than its sister word ‘consummation’, both of these turn out to be crucially important. Consumption derives from the Latin ‘consumere; con sumere’, which means to use up entirely, to destroy (as in teh old-fashioned name for the lungg disease tuberculosis [consumption], and the expression ‘consumed by fire’). By contrast, ‘consummation’ derives from the Latin ‘consumare; con summa’, which means to sum up, to bring to completion (as in the old-fashioned expression for sex: ‘the consummation of a relationship’). In some languages, such as French, these two words have been rolled into one, so that the French word ‘consummer’ carries the dual implication of both fulfilment and annulment. This semantic ambivalence might be extrapolated to suggest that the English-language word ‘consumption’ entails both an act of destruction (which explains why it often seems to make more sense to speak of ‘consuming a hamburger’ than ‘consuming a cathedral’) and an act of creation (bringing to a climax, reaching a peak, achieving a promised fulfilment). Indeed, recent work on consumption and the consumer society is based on precisely this kind of duplicity. Somewhat paradoxically, then, ‘consumption’ means both ‘destroying’ (using up) and ‘creating’ (making full use of). Like the capitalist system of which it has become a fundamental part, consumption should be thought of as a form of ‘creative destruction’.

If all this sounds a little abstract, let us make things more concrete by pointing out that eating a cream cake involves both destroying it and obtaining pleasure from it at one and the same time.

Consumption as dialectical

Consumption is one of the basic ways in which society is structured and organised, usually unequally, sometimes incredibly so. Differential powers, resources and life chances are routinely produced and reproduced by and through consumption patterns. Consumption not only take place within culture and thus within specific cultures; it also produces culture and cultures. This is so in the general sense that consumption is part of and contributes to the wider culture of a given society of social group; it is also so in the more particular sense that it produces cultures and local sub-culture centred around consumption and acts of consuming. Thus consumption is in culture but equally culture derives at least in part from consumption and consuming. Furthermore, consumption also constructs, even consumes, the consumer. Just as production produces both products and the producer, teh worker, so too consumption has a dialectical form. People do consumption, and are ‘done to’, constructed, consumed by that consumption. Consumption is structure, process and agency.

— Jeff Hearn and Sasha Roseneil, “Consuming Cultures: Power and Resistance,” in Hearn and Roseneil (ed.) Consuming Cultures (UK: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1999), p. 1.

Ambivalence in consumption.

p. 2

But what if a latter-day Robinson Crusoe were shipwrecked on a desert island with nothing to consume but the champagne and caviar rescued from the galley of a stricken motor launch?

Goods that are needed for physical survival also tend to be needed for social survival: for expressing similarity with and demonstrating difference from others; for seeking social solidarity and asserting social distinction.

one may say, instead of ‘one consumes’, that one ‘subsists’.

The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth-century England

McKendrick, Neil, “The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth-century England,” p. 40-41.

Consumer revolution of 18th-century England, which “saw such a convulsion of getting and spending, such an eruption of new prosperity, and such an explosion of new production and marketing techniques, that a greater proportion of the population than in any previous society in human history was able to enjoy the pleasures of buying consumer goods.” (40)

consumer revolution “necessary analogue” to the industrial revolution (40).

Environmental Emotions v.s. Internal Emotions

Colin Campbell, “Traditional and Modern Hedonism,” p.48–53.

Weber’s ‘disenchantment’ (50)

The central point to be emphasised in this context is that only in modern times have emotions come to be located ‘within’ individuals as opposed to ‘in’ the world. Thus, while in the contemporary world it is taken for granted that emotions ‘arise’ within people and act as agencies propelling them into action, it is typically the case that in pre-modern cultures emotions are seen as inherent in aspects of reality, from whence they exert their influence over humans. Thus Barfield has pointed out how, in the Middle Ages, words like ‘fear’ and ‘merry’ did not denote a feeling located within a person, but attributes of external events; ‘fear’ referring to a sudden and unexpected happening, and ‘merry’ being a characteristics of such things as the day or the occasion. The attitude and emotion of ‘awe’ is another good example of an aspect of experience which was regarded as primarily a characteristic of God rather than of a man’s typical reaction to his presence. These examples show how the main sources of agency in the world were viewed as existing outside of man, from whence they not only ‘forced’ him into acting but also ‘filled’ him with those distinctively aroused states called emotions.

This view of man and his relationship to the world was to change dramatically as a consequence of the process which Weber called ‘disenchantment’; that is, the collapse of the general assumption that independent agents or ‘spirits’ were operative in nature. The origins of this development can be traced back as far as ancient Judaism but it was accelerated by the Reformation, attaining its most complete expression in the Enlightenment. A significant corollary of disenchantment was teh accompanying process of de-emotionalization such that the environment was no longer seen as the primary source of feelings but as a ‘neutral’ sphere governed by impersonal laws, which, while they controlled natural events, did not, in themselves, determine feelings. A natural consequence of this fundamental shift in world-view was that emotions were re-located ‘within’ individuals, as states which emanated from some internal source, and although these were not always ‘spiritualized’, there is a sense in which disenchantment of the external world required as a parallel process some ‘enchantment’ of the psychic inner world. A new set of terms was required in order to describe this transition, and to this end old words were pressed into fresh uses. Examples would be ‘character’, ‘disposition’ and ‘temperament’, all words which had originally referred to some feature of the external world and which now came to stand for a subjective influence upon behaviour.

This increasing separation of man from the constraining influence of external agencies, this disenchantment of the world, and the consequent introjection of the power of agency and emotion into the being of man, was closely linked to the growth of self-consciousness. (50)

Beginnings of man as subject and world as object. (50)

“Industrialism, Consumerism, Power”

Busman, Zygmunt, “Industrialism, Consumerism, Power,” p. 54–61.

Ever growing consumer pressure renders the balancing of industrial output impossible; it can be satisfied only on condition of an equally intense increase in industrial output. With satisfaction being the function of growing appropriation of consumer goods, production must grow — only to keep satisfaction of its present level and precent the feeling of ‘outraged justice’ (Barrington Moor Jr.) from emerging. Moreover, virtual demand for consumer goods tends to outstrip what economist call the ‘effective demand’ (demand backed by monetary resources and hence able to clear the existing market supply simply as an effect of buyers’ decisions); the gap between the two cannot be bridged by ‘natural laws’ of the economy, and hence becomes a political issue, which leads to the growing functionality of state intervention within the system of industrial society. Ultimately, the state is forced to switch its attention from ‘correcting the distribution’ to stimulating, if not directing, the production of surplus itself. (59)

“[…]Consumerism was born as a twice-removed offshoot of the frustrated resistance against disciplinary power which penetrated, and finally conquered teh field of productive activity.” (60)

Disciplinary power, as we remember, was first and foremost about bodily control. It was the human body which for the first time in history was made, on such a massive scale, an object of drill and regimentation. Later consumerism was a product of failed resistance to such a drill and regimentation. But what was negated could not but determine the substance and the form of its negation.

The origin left three salient birthmarks on its offspring.

First, disciplinary power in teh form in which it was redeployed from the seventeenth century on, produced the body as an object of conscious attention, as a receptacle of potential powers which, to materialise, must be selectively developed and properly channeled — as, in short, a thing incomplete in itself, underdetermined, needing cultivation towards an ideal which would not be attained without a conscious and consistent effort. this power produced a body consisting of two parts of unequal value and different relation to the ideal; a part to be suppressed, tamed, hidden, and preferably eradicated, and a part to be tended to, cared for, brought into full fruition.

Much in the same was as Rod Steiger’s pawnbroker manifested his liberation from concentration camp slavery in choosing the non-interference with evil into which he was forced by his camp guards, consumerism as a compensatory reaction to heteronomous bodily drill selects an autonomous bodily drill as its principle target. Consumerism is not about the emancipation of the body from control; it is about the joy of controlling the body of one’s own will, with the help of sophisticated products of technology which offer all the visibility of the formidable power of one’s controlling agency. The body is subjected to, say, the uncompromising drill of slimming or jogging discipline, applied against the body’s natural drives and wants, but this time administered by the body’s own master. Consumerist freedom drags behind it a huge shadow of its slave origin. To satisfy itself it does not need to break the manacles. It satisfies itself by locking the manacles with its own key.

Second, the bodily training associate with the disciplinary power in its production setting, failed to develop some attributes of the body which under condition of consumerism acquire particular significance. Growing consumption is a novel task, to which the body must be prepared as it was prepared in the past to accomplish tasks. It must be made fit to absorb an ever growing number of sensations the commodities offer or promise. Once again the body is to be trained, but this time its capacity as a ‘receptacle of sensations’ is the training target. It is a condition of sine qua non of consumerism that the body becomes richer, and life is fuller, depending on the ubiquity and comprehensiveness of its training. Often there is little to distinguish between developing a capacity to absorb new (or more) sensations, and the more traditional forms of bodily drill. The objective, for instance, is not to train the capacity to enjoy music, but to make the body capable to withstand a permanent exposure to the flow of sometimes deafening, sometimes barely discernible, sounds. The objective is not to teach appreciation of dramatic plot, but to drill teh body into a need to be exposed again and again to unfamiliar and familiar plots alike, in slow motion or reverse order — a need into which the contraption of a video-recorder fits like hand into glove. The objective is not to develop the suppressed capacity of erotic sensuality, but to drill a body into the capacity of going over and over again the codified routine of sexual acts. Orgasm is just one of the many promised prizes, calculated to prompt willing embracement of ‘do-it-yourself’ or ‘teach-yourself’ drill. They retain their attraction in as far as the elusive bodily sensation is translated into ‘objectified’(60) indices of the observable routine, and hence the relevance is shifted form teh outcome to the bodily drill itself. On the whole, it is a condition of consumerism that the body is trained into a capacity to will and absorb more marketable goods, and that routines are instilled, through a self-inflicted drill, which make possible just that.

Third, the body, this object of loving care, has retained its central defining features as articulated and imputed during the dawn of disciplinary power: it has remained first and foremost the paramount source of evil and suffering, and as such it cannot be left unattended: the care of the body as the crucial time and money-consuming activity of the denizens of consumer society is an uneasy, poorly balanced mixture o love and horror (which renders the body not unlike the divine objects of religious fervour of the past). As before, the body is charged with the responsibility for success and failure in earthly endeavours, and teh urge ‘to do something about my life’ is most eagerly translated into a precept ‘to do something about my body’. (60–61)