Consuming Consumption

Just over five years ago the University of Leicester allowed me to start referring to myself as a Lecturer in Social Theory and Consumption. I remember calling a friend up at the time in order to impose the good news upon him. He acted how I had hoped any friend would have acted within such a situation: by conspicuously avoiding a congratulatory tone, by stubbornly insisting upon the relative global insignificance of the event and, in an obviously well rehearsed tone of cynical resignation, by drawlingly bemoaning how yet another pretentious pseudo-intellectual was now sure to become yet another self-righteously pretentious pseudo-intellectual. The more than apparent symmetry between the occasion for this conversation, on the one hand, and my demonstrable ability to reasonably predict the course of its’ development, on the other, led me into believing this was a passage of life I would subsequently come to lament. Rather than mutually contemplating the poetry of a moment opening up to the inevitability of its passing, however, my friend and I instead remained true to the tenure of many of our previous dialogues by refusing to give so much as an inch to one another. “What the fuck do you know about tuberculosis anyway Dunner?” he snarlingly inquired. By way of dismissive response I patronisingly underlined how, by actually taking some time to listen to me at some point in his life, he might come to avoid prematurely misfiring so many contemptuous arrows into his own foot. 

It isn’t only within discussions between my friend and I that consumption is bound to go through a laborious degree of terminological give and take, of course. Those for whom it doesn’t conjure up associations of blood-spattered handkerchiefs concealed in denial have more than enough scope for conversational incompatibility remaining at their disposal. Etymologically and ecologically, we are regularly met with the suggestion that consumption is one of the names for destruction or annihilation; anthropologically, it often denotes a mode of communication; economically, it presupposes production; whereas aesthetically, it often serves to designate a mode of experience, or even to stand in as a name for experience itself. In what way are these various lines of enquiry to be brought together? What should a student of consumption actually study? What isn’t consumption? The first joke I tell my new students every year riffs on how the study of consumption seems all consuming precisely because it is logically self-consuming. Nobody ever laughs at the joke and this only goes to prove, by way of self-fulfilling prophecy, that I’ve gone and misunderstood the desires of my consumers.   

The most obvious way in which consumption is rendered observable and verifiable today, of course, is as a key economic indicator. This is one of the many domiciles claimed by the sovereign consumer of neo-liberal economics which sees its’ own property rights everywhere: the free to choose citizen who votes for parties at the polling station and for producers at the supermarket. Approaching consumption as an empirically demonstrable category makes it possible for analysts to put paid to the terminological ambiguity in which consumption is traditionally shrouded as a means of seeming to directly address the pressing macro-economic anxieties of the day. The anti-recessionary tonic will be concocted out of some parts consumer confidence, after all, so the contemporary student of consumption would be presumably well advised to apply themselves less to the question of what consumption is, or to whether it should prevail, and more to the problem of how to increase consumption’s occurrence for the sake of bringing the promised land which exists beyond recession that little bit closer to home.

J.K. Galbraith famously lambasted the seeming delusions of such a view of consumption over half a century ago. The Affluent Society develops a strident critique of what would become known as neo-liberalism’s account of consumer demand as a logical and moral imperative by gesturing toward the short sightedness inherent in the treating of all matters of public policy as matters of private preference. On the one hand, in an analysis that remains timely, Galbraith’s book polemically underlines the logical and moral hazards inherent within any macro-economic policy which would facilitate increased consumption by way of relaxed financial regulation. On the other hand, perhaps less in keeping with our time, Galbraith neglects to seriously consider why such an obnoxiously deluded world-view might come to persist. Consider the recent example of intelligent creatures finding themselves compelled to consider snow as a moral issue rather than as a meteorological event. With Galbraith, we might well sneer at such moments of patronisingly nonsensical hubris. Nevertheless, we repeatedly fall back upon this economic deterministic outlook on the world with alarming regularity and despite our better judgment. Of course snow isn’t a moral issue but for the purposes of how we now see the world lets think and act as if it was. Galbraith explains the persistence of such nonsense simply on the basis of the vested interests contained within the preservation of what he calls the conventional wisdom. If only it were so straightforward.

These notes are occasioned by the fact that less than a fortnight ago I attended a conference which I had spent much of the past year co-organising with Norah Campbell and Alan Bradshaw. As luck would have it, our conference on the Politics of Consumption, in Dublin, was synchronous with a strong public mobilisation against the privatisation of Ireland’s system of water provision. The timing of the event seemed to have run in our favour whilst the hard work of our contributors more than justified our many background endeavours. From Ben Fine’s opening keynote speech on Consumption Matters, through to Kate Soper’s keynote on The Politics of Prosperity and onto to the closing roundtable on The Politics of Consumption in Ireland, we were treated to a variety of provocations and analyses which addressed the phenomenon of consumption in its conceptual and political complexity. The event’s programme is here, audio recordings are available on request and a special issue of ephemera will follow towards the beginning of next year.

To briefly come back to my friend, I should say that he laughed right into my Skype mediated face when I suggested he should come along to the event for the sake of learning something. I take this as evidence for how consumption is partially a matter of individual dispositions which cannot be reduced to extra-individual phenomena. He takes such an account as evidence for the self-righteously pretentious pseudo-intellectualism he had previously predicted. As the producer of this text, of course, I’m bound to go for option one. Let us assume for similar reasons that my friend will go for option two. Which of the options would you choose? Stated otherwise: in what way will you express your freedom? This is the logic of the sovereign consumer applied to the act of critical reading. It is analogous to the form of democracy advocated by neo-liberal economics in as much as the aggregation of choice events is ultimately treated as a mode of justification which cannot be legitimately challenged.

To oppose this model at its roots, however, it isn’t so much a question of opposing potentially absurd choices in themselves, or even in total, so much as it is a question of opposing the abstract proposition that it is better to be able to choose, than not. This fundamental alternative brings us towards a potential paradox by virtue of the fact that it too can be understood as a matter of choice, of preference, of consumption. The inherent difficulty in opposing the logic of the sovereign consumer ultimately becomes the very paradox of choosing to choose against choice. This is a paradox which makes for a series of entertaining pedagogical and philosophical activity, for sure, but it also happens to be the paradox out of which an account of the consumer which neo-liberal economics would be incapable of accommodating might, or might not, eventually become produced.

2 thoughts on “Consuming Consumption

  1. In my mind, the problem with consumer research is precisely the openness of the term. This simultaneously opens up consumer research to look at all manner of social interactions, while reducing everything to consumption, but, it also enacts some disciplinary policing. If you look in the main journals of consumption, its fairly clear what consumption is: making a purchase decision. They leave it to ephemera to discuss the politics of it.

    However, I think the best way to think about consumption is not as a thing or an activity but as a particular form of social relation – namely, a want served through the market. The open questions then become: what is a want (as opposed to a need), why do we turn to the market to satisfy wants and how do we change our behaviours as we become “consumers”. So my concern with much research on consumers is that it is essentially just studying (Western) people and does not focus on how people behave differently when they act as consumers. But ‘consumer’ is a social role that mediates a particular social relationship just like ‘parent’, ‘patient’ or ‘pupil’ do.

    I look forward to my soon-to-be-written paper on the matter.

  2. “I take this as evidence for how consumption is partially a matter of individual dispositions which cannot be reduced to extra-individual phenomena.”

    This for me is the crux of consumption. It is a theoretically rich social relation (aka Robert), but it is also a relentlessly embodied, ordinary, all-consuming practice. It is the shopping list on the fridge. This all-consuming nature of consumption reminds me of the Elliot quote Bruce Robbins cites in The Sweatshop Sublime – “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” This quality makes it quite farcical. Like when the conference on the politics of consumption was on downstairs, some of us were upstairs trying to off-load over-ordered, over-priced, fair-trade coffee and pastries on a homeless shelter. All this going on in the same buidling. I always try and remember that people who I teach feel that wrench between the embodied and the often too-disembodied political too. Consumption is extra-intra-individual.

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