Juliet Schor rightly chastises conventional economic theory for its narrow, rationalistic understanding of consumer preferences. As an alternative, she sketches a sociological model of consumption, in which consumers go in for upscale-emulation and endlessly ratchet up their competitive consumption.
Schor’s “status game” analysis conveys important insights and is an improvement over the economistic alternative. But applause does not foster discussion, so I propose here to focus on two related points of disagreement: first, Schor is insufficiently attentive to the cultural complexity of consumption; second, her critique of consumption resonates with a puritanical moralism that demonizes consumption as a source of enervation and irrational excess.
1. Culture and Consumption. An extensive body of consumer studies has documented that many central aspects of both personal and collective identity are created, maintained, and transformed through consumption.1 Personal enrichment and communal affiliation do not exist outside of consumption or necessarily in opposition to it. The status game critique of consumption is most compelling when one accepts the romantic view that individuals harbor an authentic self that can only be distorted by the seductions of consumer culture. It is less compelling when identity is taken to be socially constructed. From this perspective, consumer culture provides symbolic tools for constructing and re-constructing identity through self-defining leisure practices. (Am I, for example, a runner, couch potato, classical pianist, foreign film aficionado, or perhaps some combination?) Consumption also links individuals together. On a small scale, consider the social bonds enacted through the ritual sharing of a meal or gift exchange. On larger scale, think of youth-oriented “rave” cultures, Harley-Davidson enthusiasts, or the virtual communities coalescing around popular culture entertainment (e.g. the resurgent Star Wars community). Accordingly, an effective politics of consumption must move beyond a critique of materialism and address the deep connections between personal and communal identity and consumption practices.
For Schor the conspicuous act of materially “keeping up with the Joneses” is the linchpin of contemporary consumption. But this formulation is in some ways behind the postmodern times. Consumers are already pursuing an improved quality of life rather than greater quantity of stuff, and consumer culture is right there selling “it” to them with great skill and alacrity. Whether in the form of travel or museum patronage, self-enriching leisure activities are fundamentally embedded in marketing techniques and the exigencies of consumer culture. Furthermore, nothing is more heavily marketed than spiritual development: the “new age” industry, the mass-marketed quasi-Eastern mysticism espoused by Deepak Chopra, and religious experience (marketing is not just for televangelism any more) are just a few of the “spiritual goods” available on the market. Indeed, postmodern consumer culture has been characterized as a post-materialist “economy of signs,” in which self-enhancement and even spiritual epiphany are dominant consumer motivations. Of course, material goods still carry much symbolic currency, but consumption practices that enable individuals to create a “mindful,” “centered,” “authentic” identity, immune to “other-directed” pressures, are now important markers of social status. An effective politics of consumption must address this essential element of postmodern consumer culture.
Reducing consumption to an unreflective, Veblenesque status game also elides the role of consumption in negotiating political and cultural ideas and sensibilities. Thus, consider the role of popular culture as a domain of expression and protest for those on the socio-economic margins and other countercultural groups2: Chuck D said that rap music is the “black CNN.” Yes, these expressions of cultural resistance have been routinely coopted by the market.3 Still, consumer culture gives expression to a multitude of meanings, values, and social interests. And even when these countercultural motifs enter the mainstream, they carry the potential for subtle forms of social change. Once-marginal ideas about environmentalism and naturalism, for example, have fostered an increasingly critical stance toward a status-chasing, materialistic lifestyle and the “depthless” world of mass-produced goods, glamorizing advertising pitches, home shopping networks, and dizzyingly garish shopping malls.
2. Puritanism. Veblen is usually credited with the original insight into the dire consequences of conspicuous consumption. But his oh-so-seminal account tapped into a broader range of fin-de-siècle anxieties about the detrimental effects of modern civilization upon masculinity. The Victorian “cult of domesticity”-which fostered the cultural link between consumption and femininity-was widely criticized as emasculating, and thus threatening the moral fiber (as well as the bodies) of the next generation of patriarchs. The contemporary manifestation of this historical legacy is the view of consumption as a wanton and scandalously profane activity that impedes the attainment of a higher moral-spiritual plane. If real, deep, genuine, higher human needs could triumph over artificial consumer desires, “the good society” would lie within reach.
What’s the problem with this despairingly disparaging view of consumption? For starters, consumer culture has been uniquely attuned to the social positions of women and their culturally constructed feminist aesthetic.4 The moral critique of consumerism has an inescapably patriarchal background: it is steeped in a phobia of feminization and an infatuation with Puritanical asceticism. It effects a rejection of the sensual and emotive aspects of human experience and an extreme suspicion of “unproductive” pleasures.
Consumption is dangerous precisely because it resists this rationalized, puritanical, patriarchal construction of the perfect society. That actual consumer behavior does not correspond even a little bit to the “rational man” model so lionized by conventional economists is not just a theoretical oversight but the very point. Consumer behavior has always been an inexplicable misbehavior for those who envision a rational social order: it is too emotive, irrational, and impelled by desires for pleasure and baroque excess-“why can’t a consumer be more like a rational man?”
Rather than extolling the middle-class to “resist” the seductive enticements of the market-place and consume more autonomously and rationally, perhaps we should abandon this self-disciplining, rationalist discourse altogether. Such abandonment need not lead to an even greater preoccupation with consumption. An irony not to be overlooked is that this pervasive moralistic critique of consumption has been the historical concomitant to the explosive increase in materialism. Perhaps the never-ending cycle of work-spend and the ceaseless quest for “new things” has less to do with a desire to “keep up with the Joneses” than a deeply internalized inhibition against pleasure.5
So, perhaps a radical politics of consumption should argue for getting more pleasure out of consumption, rather than repackaging the age-old admonition that individuals seek “true” fulfillment by escaping the flesh, or mortifying it. Schor makes the cogent point that everyone in the advertising industry knows that consumers are not rational, utility maximizers. They also know that “sex sells.” Though it is tempting to say that it sells “despite our puritanical view of sexuality,” the truth may be that it sells “because of our puritanical view of sexuality.” Could it be that insatiable materialistic desires and the undeniable ecological dangers posed by overconsumption are equally dependent on a Puritanical rendering of consumer pleasure as a moral danger-and therefore as worthy of our devotion?
1 See, for example, Eric J. Arnould and Linda L. Price, ” ‘River Magic’: Extraordinary Experience and the Service Encounter,” Journal of Consumer Research 20 (June 1993): 24-46; John Schouten and James McAlexander, “Subcultures of Consumption: An Ethnography of New Bikers,” Journal of Consumer Research 22 (June 1995): 43-61.
2 See for example George Lipsitz, Time Passages (1990).
3 Of course, this “trickle-up” process of commodification also inspires new forms of cultural expression among countercultural groups struggling to distinguish themselves from the dominant culture.
4 See among others Rita Felski, The Gender of Modernity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993); and William Leach,Land of Desire (New York: Pantheon, 1991).
5 It’s not just about sex. A mundane, if anecdotal example should suffice to make the point. American consumer culture is notorious for its Puritanical, self-abnegating, and hyper-controlling orientation toward food, and it is also a culture where junk food, sublimated advertising images of food erotica, obesity, and binge eating abound. In dramatic contrast, Continental cultures-the French being the exemplary case-view eating in highly sensual and social terms and, in general, have a far more relaxed and unproblematic relation to food.