“We are living the period of the objects (products): that is, we live by their rhythm, according to their incessant cycles. Today, it is we who are observing their birth, fulfillment, and death; whereas in previous civilizations, it was the object, instrument, and perennial monument that survived the generations of men. …Today, we are everywhere surrounded by the remarkable conspicuousness of consumption and affluence, established by the multiplication of objects, services, and material goods… Strictly speaking, men of wealth are no longer surrounded by other human beings, as they have been in the past, but by objects… As the wolf-child becomes wolf by living among them, so are we becoming functional.” Jean Baudrillard in an essay Consumer Society observed that consumerism represented a fundamental mutation in the ecology of the human species.
Zygmunt Bauman in his book Consuming Life characterizes our contemporary lifestyle as homo consumens – the consuming being. “The ethos of consumption has penetrated every sphere of our lives. As culture, leisure, sex, politics, and even death turn into commodities, consumption increasingly constructs the way we see the world”, says Margaret Crawford, professor of Architecture at University of California – Berkeley. William Leiss, Canadian academic, pointed out that the best measure of social consciousness is the Index of Consumer Sentiment, which identifies willingness to spend and tells us about how optimistic the future of the world is – a future that extends only till the end of the fiscal year, or the fiscal quarter.
Consumption hierarchies, where commodities define lifestyle, furnish indications of status more visibly today than economic relationships of class positions. Status, as defined through consumer products, is easy to read since the necessary information has already been [inter]nationally distributed through advertising, according to Crawford.
John Kenneth Galbraith, economist, was instrumental in highlighting the evolution of capitalism from a producing to a consuming economy. Galbraith argued that the basic problem of contemporary capitalism is not the contradiction between maximization of profit and the rationalization of production but a contradiction between virtually unlimited productivity and the need to dispose of the product. Thus, the system is not only interested in controlling the mechanism of production, but also the demand for the product at the level of the consumer. Galbraith termed this the revised sequence in contrast to the accepted sequence where the consumer is supposed to have control and reflects through the free mechanism of the market what is needed and what is not. On the contrary, consumer society sees the creation of an unlimited number of wants and needs and appeals directly to desire as discussed earlier. Thus, the shift from a market economy to a consumer culture. And subsequently the rise of this insatiable consumer for whom, as Zygmunt Bauman writes in Globalization: The Human Consequences only desire desires desire and nothing can ever be enough?
Thorstein Veblen was one of the first sociologists to point out that the real purpose of capitalism is consumption (he termed it conspicuous consumption), and that it works insidiously through the spread of consciousness. Veblen did more than anyone else to turn the study of capitalism from production and power to consumerism and culture.
Thomas Maschio who has worked extensively in the area of American middle-class consumerism, and also in Papua New Guinea, finds that consumers have almost millenarian expectations about what products can do for their lives. Western societies, especially in the USA, have ritualized consumption to the point that it has become a culturally central phenomenon for their lives. At the heart of consumerism, then, lie not the products, but the fulfillment of values such as individualism and freedom. Robert Bellah, distinguished sociologist of religion, termed this self-improvement through economic initiative.
Maschio writes that “developing an anthropology of [American] consumer culture involves developing an understanding of materialist desire: what it is, what it does to human beings, and the part it plays in the character of American lives… Individuals can aspire to new status through consumption, thus making their desire into a new way of becoming. The product is the form for different manifestations of desire, the vehicle for engaging, satisfying, exploring, and creating further desires. For Americans, ‘successful’ products are empty, they encompass a space of possibility. It is this possibility about life, status, achievement, beauty, youth, athleticism, self mastery, physical prowess, speed, safety, comfort, sex, intoxication, taste, food, scent, home and love that consumers desire to make their own, through the medium of the product. The product is made by the consumer into an ally in this [constant] contest to realize a more idealized vision of the self.”
Stuart Hobbs, author of The End of the American Avant Garde, writes: “What defines consumer culture is not the purchase and use of goods, however, but the constellation of values that delineate the meaning of consumption. Consumer culture contrasts with the older producer culture in the conception of the economy and the individual. Scarcity defined the economy of the producer culture: hard work, thrift, self-denial, and deferred gratification defined the internal qualities of the individual. In consumer culture, however, abundance characterized the economy. Adherents of the new value system emphasized leisure, spending and self-fulfillment. In an economy of abundance, people believed that gratification need not be deferred: one could have everything immediately… individual qualities such as being liked or striving to develop an attractive personality replaced the inner-directed, producer culture emphasis on having a strong moral character.”
Entrapped by the luxury of the product, there seems to be a new style of adaptation and that has nothing to do with escape, but with entrenching oneself further in this consumerism cage – by throwing oneself headlong into the prison of the shopping mall or the cage of consumerism. However, one has to stay strong inside this prison or at least demonstrate the strength of one’s resolve to stay on inside this cage; and this is done through the practice of bodily asceticism* (see note on asceticism at end of article).
In this bodily asceticism, the consuming citizen indulges in the abundance of consumer products but constantly subjects his body to frugality by denying the body food items and anything that is pleasurable to the taste buds, fetishizes diet drinks, and constantly exercises. And all this is done in as much public view as possible. There is no attempt or even thought given to releasing oneself from this cage of consumerism by reducing or stopping the indulgence in products; rather the person who exercises more also consumes more. And when asked whether they want to release themselves from the cage, this exercising and dieting consumer gives you that same frenzied, yet glazed, look that they have while shopping and ask you: Why? What else is there?
The practice of the new bodily asceticism, through publicly visible exercise and dieting, is but an attempt to demonstrate their willingness and their good intent as consuming citizens, that they are not so-called flawed consumers that Zygmunt Bauman wrote about in The Strangers of the Consumer Era.
What else then is this new bodily asceticism? The predominant survival strategy for the devout consumer is the health and fitness lifestyle, as Bauman noted several years ago in his essay titled Survival as a social construct.
Thus, all across the developed world and in many areas of the developing world where consumerism has taken root one finds people running – they are running so they can keep their hearts healthy – or so they will tell you at first. When pushed further, they will say that they are preventing death. According to Bauman in Survival as a Social Construct the logic goes like this: “Death is omnipotent and invincible; but none of the specific cases of death is [...] There are so many causes of death; given enough time, one can name them all. If I defeat, escape or cheat twenty among them, twenty less will be left to defeat me. I can do nothing to defy mortality. But I can do quite a lot to avoid a blood clot or a lung cancer. I can stop eating eggs, refrain from smoking, do physical exercise, keep my weight down; I can do so many other things [...] Fighting death is meaningless. But fighting the ‘causes’ of dying turns into the meaning of life.”
And as Gertrude Stein said: Americans do not die – they are killed. One can replace the word Americans with consumers. Yet, all the exercising is not just about death. We see a deeper layer underneath the fitness revolution. Crawford finds that the process of shopping – a quintessential act of consumer society – begins even before the shopper enters the mall. The consumer is already primed by the barrage of messages in the commercialized contemporary social environment. The average American, she quotes, has seen anywhere between 3000,000 to 400,000 television commercials before the age of twenty, and the shopper arrives in the mall with a confused set of wants. She goes on by stating: “Mentally ‘trying on’ products teaches shoppers not only what they want and what they can buy, but also what they don’t have, and what therefore they need. Armed with this knowledge, shoppers can not only realize what they are but also imagine what they might become. Identity is momentarily stabilized even while the image of a future identity begins to take shape, but the endless variation of objects means that satisfaction always remains out of reach.”
Thus, at one level is this constant state of dissatisfaction or the unending search for satisfaction even with one’s own body image or with health. Thus, there is a constant feeling that there are better things out there or a better state of health.
This psychological state of being in a consumerist society is termed by us as fatalistic optimism. In this state individuals are always optimistic that they will find a better product – a better shirt, a better shoe, a better TV, a better state of health, or a better partner, a better soul mate only if they keep looking – keep shopping. This state has so pervaded the arena of relationships that the divorce rates in a consumer society rates are among the highest in recent human history – and yet these same people are remarrying within minutes of their last divorce. Thus, the individual almost knows before they have even paid for the product or soul mate they picked off the shelf that they are going to dispose of it very soon. And yet they are optimistic in a truly fatalistic sense. This fatalistic optimism is only one of the contributory factors to the fitness and health strategy. At another level is the social nature of consumption.
Baudrillard (1988:46) argues that the “isolated consumer is the carefully maintained illusion of the ideological discourse on consumption. Consumers are mutually implicated, despite themselves, in a general system of exchange and in the production of coded values… consumption is a system of meaning, like language, or like the kinship system in primitive societies”.
America, according to Maschio, is characterized by a democratisation of desire and sees consumer culture as a platform for self-expression and self-affirmation. Maschio does not point to the route through which this distinctiveness is sought apart from the fact that it goes via the sameness of products that people purchase. Everyone wants to wear a Gap khaki trouser or a Nike shoe in order to express their individuality. The contradiction between all of us desiring the same type of product while trying to fashion our unique identities leads to the unique tension within consumer culture, and leads to an unending cycle of desiring more – a constant state of searching for satisfaction. The signs or symbols a person uses as a means of identifying themselves as different from others has to be understood by the very others this person is trying to differentiate himself from. Thus, there has to be a sameness of signs and symbols.
We all wear the same clothes and understand the same system of signs, and yet we are distinct and free to choose what kind of sameness we want for ourselves. Andre Glucksmann, member of the French new philosophers, said, “… (since) we are free together. Therefore, only the group is free”,
Inspired by Rabelais’ book Gargantua and Pantagruel Glucksmann wrote: “Making use of this liberty, they most laudably rivaled each other in all of them doing what they saw pleased one. If one man or woman said: Let us drink, they all drank. If one said: Let us play, they all played. And if it was: let us go and amuse ourselves in the fields, they all went there. This society seems doomed to repeat ad infinitum its own birth.”
Thus, the consumers, who may seem distant and isolated actually talk to each other all the time without vocalizing a single syllable. They talk through the symbols and signs of brands. Thus, one could spend the entire day in a city of the consumer-economy, not talking to a single human, and yet have communicated a multitude of messages through the systematic codes designed by the corporations on the backs of our shirts, or the hoods of our cars.
The same silent code holds true for the average consumer while running through the streets or in a park as part of their daily dose of exercise and fitness. What are these silent exercisers communicating to each other, and not just through the brand of running shoes or jogging suits they wear, but also through the act of exercising itself? A public demonstration of the fulfillment of their obligations and duties as citizens of a consumer society.
A consumer society is by definition also a society that runs on debt. One can stretch Zygmunt Bauman’s characterization of our contemporary lifestyle as homo consumens – the consuming being – to its next logical step as has been done by Italian sociologist Maurizio Lazaretto. According to him we have become the homo debitor (the indebted human) because so many of us – individuals and whole countries alike – live on borrowed money. Homo consumens and homo debitor are closely connected.
We stretch Crawford’s argument that shopping starts even before the person reaches the mall. We argue that consumerism starts even before the consumer is born in a consumer society because every citizen in this consumer-country is entitled to a debt from the credit card companies. Even before they are born, they have already been assigned a certain amount of dollars that they can spend. They do not have to go through an intensive scrutiny for a loan – they are loaned money even before they ask. But there is no free lunch as the common aphorism goes, and so there is no free money. This entitlement comes at a price and that price is the price of having to repay all that debt that they got even though they did not ask for it or at least demonstrate the intent to.
The consumer has to do two things: first, they have to ensure that they repay at least the interest, if not the entire amount, every month; and second, they have to demonstrate to their fellow consumers that they do not intend to live off them – that they intend to live long and work hard enough so that they can repay all that unasked for debt that they incurred just by being born.
While consumers in this society indulge in excess shopping and waste when it comes to products or even relationships, they exhibit intense frugality when it comes to the body. The body is punished, self-regimented in the Foucauldian sense of the term, denied certain kinds of food, pushed and pulled in a thousand different directions by the fitness machines and experts in order to stay fit and healthy and consuming. Thus, the idea is to practice the new bodily asceticism while being extremely hedonistic in terms of consumption.
The intense antipathy that consumers in this society demonstrate towards their fellow consumers who do not exercise, do not take care of their health is not merely because this society has a fear of death. No, it is mainly because that lack of exercise, the indulgence in and of the body in a decadent sense, that slothfulness, and disrespect to the fitness strategy shows dishonorable intentions with respect to repaying that debt. It shows that this person lacks the mindset of bodily asceticism that is needed in order to continue fulfilling the insatiable needs of consumption.
Consumers live today by borrowing from the future. Thus, I can purchase a car that I need to get around the city today without a single contribution to the world of work, without anything that I have given to the world. I am getting a car on money borrowed from the future – my future potential to earn, stay employed, and therefore, the importance of health and fitness. I have to show the required keenness to stay fit because then I demonstrate good intent to be a good citizen and pay of all that I have borrowed from the future. Therefore I cannot be sick or die early or do unhealthy things because then I would be duping all my fellow consumers who have borrowed from the future too.
In fact not only does a consumer society like America borrow money and resources from the future, the new fairy tales for children are also space games and futuristic battles on distant planets in the video games. There are no more Grimm’s tales, but stories from Star Wars. In fact, the Star Wars corporation went so far as to create a sequel that actually went back into the past of the character that was from some distant future. As Andre Glucksmann compares the contemporary world to the Thelemites from Rabelais’ fable of Gargantua and Pantagruel: “They live in the present: like the past, the future turns out to be abolished”.
What happens when a culture or society increasingly borrows from the future instead of the past? What does that do to the culture – to history as we know it and how does it affect individuals? Instead of showing off one’s family genealogy and connections as in kinship societies or merit as in a modern society to borrow for goods we need today, one has to display one’s ability to shop in the future – to incur debt and pay it off.
All this running in public spaces such as parks or sidewalks does not allow for a moment of pause or conversation between people; instead they exchange the silent code: Yes, I am afflicted by fatalistic optimism and I fit into the strategy of bodily asceticism that is demanded by consumer culture.
And while jogging the consumer oblivious to his own afflictions and strategy of asceticism ponders: what kind of shoes will I buy this evening?”
And the consumer keeps running every day and the next, but goes nowhere.
Adapted from The Fall of Public Place by Michael Jacobsen and Nilesh Chatterjee
Cover Image of People walking on the street in Turkey – Richa Narvekar
Shopping Mall in Scotland – Bridget Zhang
Flowers for Sale – Dennis Dodson
Jogging in Central Park: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Central_Park_jogging.jpg
* Note on asceticism:
Max Weber pointed out that it is common for a tension or contradiction to exist between religious demands and humankind’s material needs, and the particular way in which such a tension is resolved is crucial to the history of that society or an entire civilization. Weber’s classic work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Weber 1904-1905) demonstrates this interrelationship and interdependence of ideational and material factors in history, especially with respect to the development and growth of capitalist society.
According to Weber, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century had a dramatic impact on the development of the West because many Protestant sects imposed an ascetic and methodical lifestyle on their members, which helped transform them into the modern individual. He described two major modes of religious experience – asceticism and mysticism – ways of escape that are open to all individuals in all societies.
Asceticism, according to Weber, suggests that individuals selflessly apply themselves to a mission, turning their backs from the rewards and pleasures of the world. They thrive on the mere performance of a task – all feeling and sensuality is denied, and a rigorous pattern of righteous self-discipline followed instead. Mysticism as a worldview, on the other hand, derives not from mastery over oneself but from states of consciousness.
Weber’s metaphor of the iron cage of modern, rational, bureaucratic instrumentalism is classic in studies of transformation of society and of modernity; and he suggested that charismatic movements by virtue of their irrationality and emotionalism often allow individuals to escape from that cage.