Rebel Consumers?
January 30, 2003 2:55 PM   Subscribe

The critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for more than 40 years. This is an article written by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter for This Magazine. They raise the question; if we all hate consumerism, how come we can't stop shopping? They say that consumerism is not based conformity, as seen in movies like Fight Club and American Beauty, but is based on distinction.
posted by Quartermass (24 comments total)
I am afraid I see nothing that is new in this, and the post-modern babble that also denounces "pedantry" manages in a rather roundabout manner to tell me what I learned years ago from reading Veblen and more recently Paul Fussell's book Class.

I consume. Therefore I am. And what I consume is more artistic, pure, elite than what you consume. D. Macdonald's distinctions between upper, middle, and lower brow distinctions also come in handy when discussing such things, but a look at some evolutionary psychology is also helpful.
posted by Postroad at 3:11 PM on January 30, 2003

Aaand apparently you're not allowed to find out where exactly the authors were going with all this - it's interesting stuff - unless you subscribe to or buy an actual copy of the magazine!

:: shakes fist ::

posted by furiousthought at 3:20 PM on January 30, 2003

What Postroad said.
posted by daver at 3:25 PM on January 30, 2003

What furiousthought said.
posted by syzygy at 3:33 PM on January 30, 2003

Yes, we won't know where he's going with this, and we won't find out if he addresses what is really on the minds of those who complain about conformity and consumerism. Namely, the complaint is that mass-producers market the illusion of distinction while actually providing a stereotypical lifestyle for people to buy into. It is difficult to be distinctive. The nature of mass-market-affordability is that if you buy what's available in the big store, it is cheap. If you decide you want something that's not in style this year or is, for whatever reason, not currently in mass-production, then it's really expensive, or simply impossible to find.

Ed Norton's character in Fight Club buys a yin-yang coffee table because it's whimsical and interesting (he thinks), but the irony is that the coffee table is available to everyone very cheaply and easily through a widely distributed catalog and wouldn't be there in the first place unless millions of people also thought it was distinctive. If he wanted a HR Giger-Style table, this would have been much more expensive (and not available through Ikea).

I'm surprised that the author didn't also point out the apparent contradiction in Fight Club that Tyler Durden's utopia envisions everyone wearing the same durable leather clothes that "last forever" instead of buying the latest calvin klein fashions-- a fantasy just as conformist, if not moreso, than the world Durden rails against. At the same time, some have pointed out that Fight Club just parodies two extremes- the narrator's consumerist slavery vs. Durden's anti-consumerist facism.
posted by deanc at 3:33 PM on January 30, 2003

Fundamentally, there's no difference between this angle, more action item oriented than the usual "We are all consumers" argument, and David Brooks's Bobos in Paradise.

Or, to put it succinctly:

What daver said.
posted by ed at 3:40 PM on January 30, 2003

Interestingly, I read Palahniuk's Fight Club as much more of a tale about insanity than about consumerism.
posted by daver at 4:01 PM on January 30, 2003

> D. Macdonald's distinctions

Fuller tips hat to a Dwight Macdonald fan.

> It is difficult to be distinctive.

What Dr. Johnson called the "spirit of contradiction" helps a great deal. Also helpful is an indomitable spirit. (Which N. Wolfe at once corrected: "You have another name for it?" "Yes. Your infantile contumacy.")
posted by jfuller at 4:04 PM on January 30, 2003

I tried to follow that last article on distinction since that seems to be the reason for this thread, but it escapes me. Like, what exactly does this mean?

The denial of lower, coarse, vulgar, venal, servile-in a word, natural-enjoyment, which constitutes the sacred sphere of culture, implies an affirmation of the superiority of those who can be satisfied with the sublimated, refined, disinterested, gratuitous, distinguished pleasures forever closed to the profane.
posted by stbalbach at 4:31 PM on January 30, 2003

Huh. I was wondering what "post-modern babble" Postroad was referring to. Looks like it's all in that last article. *low whistle* Man, that's thick.
posted by furiousthought at 4:56 PM on January 30, 2003

stbalbach, the sentence you quoted simply means that people who listen to NPR think they are better than people who listen to pop music stations or right-wing talk radio stations.
posted by Rebis at 5:17 PM on January 30, 2003

Tyler Durden's utopia envisions everyone wearing the same durable leather clothes that "last forever" instead of buying the latest calvin klein fashions-- a fantasy just as conformist, if not moreso, than the world Durden rails against.

But surely there's a balance that can be struck between 1) encouraging humans to aim higher than "happiness through consumption" and 2) fetishizing non-consumption in such a way that it ends up encouraging consumption of badges of non-consumption.

A simple sunset, a few deep breaths, and friendly monkeys who love you.

What deeper satisfaction can life (or Nike) offer than that?
posted by mediareport at 5:30 PM on January 30, 2003

furiousthought: Bourdieu was not a postmodernist, and spent much of his lifetime railing against such quintessential po-mo pieces as Baudrillard's "The Gulf War Did Not Happen."

I just read that last week. Impressive, no? Here's more info on the same - that is, Bourdieu's "allergic" reaction to postmodernism.
posted by raysmj at 5:32 PM on January 30, 2003

I still don't really understand what's so bad about buying mass-produced stuff. So I buy a coffee table from Ikea. I guess it's possible that everyone *could* have one, but the fact is that they don't. How often do you visit a friend and he has the same dresser, same clothes and same coffee table?

See James Twitchell "Two Cheers for Materialism" for why consumerism is not that bad after all, and indeed differentiates people rather than make them conform.

And, as deanc noted, the point of Fight Club is not that consumerism is evil. Indeed, one of the book and film's main points is that the Veblen disciples are lacking a bit of logic in their anti-consumerism.
posted by Kevs at 5:53 PM on January 30, 2003

I didn't realize that the article didn't finish. Sorry about that. I was going off of the article in the magazine, and I linked to the website without fully reading it.

Essentially, I linked the Bourdieu article because it is where I think Heath and Potter got most of their ideas (not to mention from Thomas Frank from the baffler). That is, a lot of criticism of consumerism is criticism of mass culture, and thus sees consumption as conformity. However, if we are to believe Bourdieu, Frank, Potter and Heath, it is to set ourselves apart, that taste is primarily distaste for the taste of others.

If you would like, you could take this argument and apply it to the general distaste of the avg. MeFi'er to FARK.

I am doing an Undergrad honors thesis on consumption as distinction vs consumption as conformity, and the best thing I can come up with is that it is a little of both. I mean, how else to you explain blue jeans? Everyone wears them, but almost no two are alike.

I have been reading thies site for two years now every day, and this is my first post. Thank you for being civil!
posted by Quartermass at 6:17 PM on January 30, 2003

Not so fast, Kev. I pointed out that the narrator in Fight Club was a slave to consumerism. Palahniuk portrays the narrator as sort of pathetic in this regard. Tyler Durden begins to seem like a fascist nut, but his followers are all sympathetic characters who have been worn down by the false expectations of consumerism, which is why they find Tyler Durden's message compelling... as I said, the complaint about consumerism is that it sells the illusion, a false illusion, of distinction-- "Be an individual, just like everyone else." I think that the movie does portray it as evil, but that doesn't make Tyler Durden's alternate vision any less ironic.
posted by deanc at 6:57 PM on January 30, 2003

Bourdieu was not a postmodernist

Nuts! How was I to know? If the guy had such an allergic reaction to postmodernists he should have tried not to write like one! *raspberries*

quartermass: So then the rest of the Heath and Potter article is in the same vein, finding more of the old "critique of mass society" in other so-called anti-consumerist pieces? It doesn't maybe go on to tell us what an actual critique of consumerism might look like? Double nuts then.

Isn't consumption more frequently about convenience than it is about either distinction or conformity?
posted by furiousthought at 7:40 PM on January 30, 2003

The reaction against consumerism-as-distinction is apparent in the trend over the last few decades, and the last decade in particular, of people who can afford to pay more buying from thrift stores in a desire for a truer variety (of course, there is actually less variety in most cases, but at least it's a random variety rather than a variety chosen by focus groups, and therefore generally more diverse). I have nothing against consumerism — that is, I don't find it to be 'evil' or have some kind of moral value — but nonetheless I rarely by anything new precisely because, unless you are a lot wealthier than I am, the choices (while not necessarily bad) are so limited.

The interesting question is whether this lack of diversity is inherent in mass-distributed goods, or whether a savvy marketer who recognizes the desire for variety could exploit it. I suspect this is why many people who wouldn't be caught dead in Target or IKEA like so much: with a less defined inventory, they are able to offer more obscure and 'independent' goods than a traditional retailer despite being a large, centralized operation selling mass-produced goods.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 9:13 PM on January 30, 2003

fight club didn't actualy do that well at the box office.

Kickass movie, though.

This paper reminds me of a school asignment, you know, one where you need to compare and contrast two spesifc films...
posted by delmoi at 10:53 PM on January 30, 2003

Quartermass, you might also like Juliet Schor's "The New Politics of Consumption", which was recently discussed here.
posted by homunculus at 11:39 PM on January 30, 2003

To paraphrase Dylan Thomas: a consumerist is someone you don't like who shops as much as you do.
posted by misteraitch at 12:27 AM on January 31, 2003

Submitted for your consideration...

I have found a way (partly) out of the "consumerism" quandry.

Start creating your own stuff!

Paint and re-cover, or even build your own furniture. Sketch, paint, photograph your own pictures. Decorate your own house with found objects. Create your won sculpture. Write and record your own songs.

Believe me, it's much more rewarding than consuming someone else's creations.

So there.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:39 AM on January 31, 2003

Ooops. I meant "Create your OWN sculpture." You could also create your won sculpture if you wanted to, I suppose; the important thing is to just get out there and DO IT!
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:48 AM on January 31, 2003

The denial of lower, coarse, vulgar, venal, servile-in a word, natural-enjoyment, which constitutes the sacred sphere of culture, implies an affirmation of the superiority of those who can be satisfied with the sublimated, refined, disinterested, gratuitous, distinguished pleasures forever closed to the profane.

Which can also be applied to any aficionado of any genre of recorded music, like me, for instance--or the whole MeFi CD exchange--what is being demontrated, in part, is everyone's ability to mount invidious displays of conspicuous consumption with their disposable incomes, er, I mean, selflessly sharing their expertise and great taste in purchasing and rerecording commodities of recorded music
posted by y2karl at 3:44 PM on January 31, 2003

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