Talbot Brewer – University of Virginia
Reflections on the Cultural Commons
In the most general terms, I want to address an omission that I see in contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy, and more generally in popular political debate. Normative assessment tends to operate at a highly abstract level, focusing our attention on permissible patterns of distribution of income and wealth, or on growth in economic productivity, while largely ignoring the daily activities of getting and spending through which the desired distribution or production is achieved.
I want to focus attention on the concrete patterns of getting and spending that prevail in the sorts of socio-economic orders that are favored by a range of contemporary normative political theories, and by the "growth imperative" that operates as a fixed point in public political debate. What I want to suggest is that we face the historic anomaly of a situation in which there is a de-facto program of proselytism on behalf of consumerist values -- a program of proselytism whose intrusiveness and effectiveness has no parallel in history -- and yet this particular form of proselytism can and for the most part does go forward without a cadre of true believers. This form of proselytism is the predictable deliverance of the invisible hand of global markets given contemporary communications technologies. Where it takes hold, this proselytism serves to bolster gross domestic product and to increase achievable levels of income and wealth, hence it is selected for by the normative standards that govern public political discourse and that are encoded in some of the most influential theories of distributive justice. Yet it is a serious impediment to eudaemonia -- or the flourishing life properly understood.
The task of this essay will be to describe this form of proselytism and its dangers, to explain why the normative standards that inform public discourse and much contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy cannot properly highlight these dangers, and to set out certain elements of an eudaemonistic political philosophy capable of casting these dangers in a more revealing light.
Colin Campbell – University of York
Should We Blame it on the Joneses? Conspicuous Consumption and the Threat to Sustainability
Although sociologists generally consider Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption to have little relevance to an understanding of contemporary consumer behavior, a survey of the media shows that this is the most popular explanation for the public’s apparently insatiable demand for goods. This not only raises the question of who is right – sociologists or the public – but it also focuses attention on the importance of establishing whether conspicuous consumption is or is not the primary mechanism behind the ever-expanding levels of consumption that are typical of modern industrial societies.
Although the vague and contradictory nature of Veblen’s original formulation of this theory has led to some disagreement among sociologists over its correct interpretation, it is argued that only conduct motivated by a conscious attempt to maintain or enhance status in the eyes of a target audience deserves the term. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to obtain evidence to show whether people are behaving in this fashion. Hence all that can realistically be attempted is an assessment of the plausibility of Veblen’s thesis in comparison with suggested alternative explanations of consumer behavior, an exercise the results of which rather suggests its relative insignificance.
Pablo García Ruiz – University of Zaragoza
The Two Faces of Consumerism: When Things Make Us (in)Human
There is a growing consensus in contemporary culture on blaming “consumerism” as one of the major evils of our society. We (critical observers) think we (ordinary people) buy, use, keep, and eventually dispose of more things than we really need. This overspending causes devastating effects such as huge ecological damage and greater social inequalities. This waste of resources also seems to harm our own body and soul, since it fosters materialism, selfishness and even new forms of addiction.
However, it is not so easy to abandon the so-called consumerist way of life. It is a tough task to draw a line between what is enough and what is too much. As Colin Campbell (2010) has recently argued, criticisms of consumerism are usually built on taken-for-granted assumptions that are highly questionable and frequently contradictory. The very notion of need can hardly be objectified. The meaning of commodities and the motives of consumers vary greatly. They may express greed and envy but also love and care.
The ideology of consumerism puts us all in a troublesome situation. As Daniel Miller (2008) put it, the rhetoric behind the discourse of consumerism has become hopelessly muddled, submerged in a much older and wider critique of consumption as something intrinsically bad. On the one side, we cannot but agree with the idea of preserving the ecology and of avoiding moral evils. But on the other side, consumption activities are very important in our personal and social lives. It is not only that we cannot obviate consumption. It is that we use the world of things as a language to express our feelings and our projects. We use it to build, to maintain or to end our multiple relations with other people. The material side of our existence is definitely part of a creative human life.
This paper deals with the difficult problem of the distinction between consumption as a human creative practice, and consumerism as a contemporary plague.
Campbell, Colin, 2010, What’s wrong with consumerism, Anuario Filosófico, 43, 2, pp. 276-295.
Miller, Daniel, 2008, What’s wrong with consumption?, RSA Journal of the Royal Society for the Arts, Summer, pp. 44-47
Stjepan G. Mestrovic – Texas A&M University
Post-emotional Law in Consumer Society
I draw upon my earlier work, Post-emotional Society, and key concepts in the works of Thorstein Veblen and Durkheim’s follower, Paul Fauconnet, to outline the beginnings of a new conceptualization of post-emotional law in consumer society. In Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen argued that modern consumer society was really a latter-day barbarism, or a new version of feudal society in which middle class consumers take on the role of serfs in relation to corporations as the leisure class. In La Responsabilite, Fauconnet argues that modernity involves the evolution of archaic, collective, and harsh notions of responsibility into modern, individual, and gentler laws concerning responsibility. However, he argues that ancient ideas concerning harsh and collective responsibility do not disappear, but are transformed.
I will examine common contemporary issues in responsibility and law regarding the consumer in relation to these ideas: contracts for credit cards, bank loans for home and automobiles, foreclosures, pensions, and so on. I extend my thesis that in post-emotional society, consumers are manipulated into believing and acting on the premises that they are free individuals with agency and the capacity to choose, whereas harsh, ancient collective representations offer more explanatory power for assessing the realities of consumer society.
Allison Pugh – University of Virginia
The Planned Obsolescence of Other People: Consumer Culture, Insecurity and Connection
The hidden appeal of modern commodification is in its false promise to resolve our ambivalence about relationships, according to Arlie Hochschild. Contemporary trends in many industrialized countries point to increasing insecurity at work and at home, and thus increasing opportunities for other people to fail us in our close relationships. How does consumer culture shape the way we respond to the risk society?
In this paper, I explore the ways in which adults manage uncertainty through consumer culture, including the language of rebranding, consumer choice in intimacy, and the planned obsolescence of other people. I argue against the prevailing view of consumption as a perennially individualistic pursuit, urging scholars to attend to the varied circumstances under which people deploy it not only to distinguish but also to manage their connections to others.
George Ritzer – University of Maryland
The Dehumanized Consumer: Does the Prosumer Offer Some Hope?
Being human in consumer society is, paradoxically, no easy matter. In this paper I plan to address that issue from the perspective of some of my recent and current work in the sociology of consumption. First, is the issue of the struggle against the dehumanization Max Weber associated with the rationalization of society and I, more recently, linked to both the McDonaldization of society (Ritzer, 1993/2011) and the cathedrals of consumption (Ritzer, 1999/2010). How human can we expect consumers to be in dehumanized consumption settings? Second, there is the issue of the struggle against the global proliferation of what I termed “nothing” and the search for “something” (Ritzer, 2004/2007). Does the increase in “nothing” and decrease in “something” make humanized consumption less and less likely? Finally, the recent expansion of the prosumer and prosumption (the simultaneity of production and consumption) raises new issues that relate to being human in consumer (or is it prosumer?) society (Ritzer and Jurgenson, 2010). First, is the consumer who prosumes (and most do) more or less human? Second, does being a prosumer rather than simply being a consumer give one more power? Third, is the prosumer really more human, more powerful? Or is prosumption more a tool to exploit people to a greater degree thereby making them less human?
Roberta Sassatelli – University of Milan
Consumers, Bodies and Selves. Framing Humanity Consumerwise
This paper investigates the historical formation and the specific configuration of a crucial tripartite relation in contemporary society, that which happens between the body, the self and material culture. The relation between the body, self and material culture in contemporary, post-industrial or late-modern societies has come to be largely defined through consumption. This happens at least at three levels: representational, subjective and institutional. Firstly, the imagery associated to consumption is central to visual representation in promotional culture which simultaneously revolves around the display of the body. Secondly, how individuals realize themselves as embodied subjects – that is how they manage corporeal identity participating in social interaction and how they experience and perform self and body - happens largely via the use of commodities and on the backdrop of a promotional imagery. Finally, a variety of consumer spaces, contexts and institutions increasingly address the individual as a sensuous, embodied subject in search of personal gratification and improvement.
In this paper, I shall deal with all these three levels, considering the broad literature that may be brought to bear on how representations, subjectivities and institutions converge and diverge in the shaping of consumers’ embodied selves. The first level is, indeed, typically addressed by critical theories of consumer culture as advertising, image proliferation and promotional culture. Here the self is portrayed as being largely reduced to the (surface of the) body. The body in its turn features as “the most beautiful object of consumption” – to use Baudrillard’s phrase. When dealing with the second level we encounter at least two significant streams of work: one deriving from Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and considering that embodied dispositions of tastes are mapped onto social divisions, class in particular, which consumers’ lifestyles make visible; the other deriving from theories of reflexive individualization which stress the reflexive, strategic role of individuals in stylizing one’s own selves through a variety of body projects. In both streams, body and self are posited as in a dialectical relation mediated by commodities and mediating social reproduction (responding, respectively, either to class/gender divisions and hierarchies or to individualization and cultural de-classification).
Reaching the third level we will then come across a quite varied set of suggestions, theories and even disciplines: just like contemporary marketing is very aware of the sensory and situational component of consumption, we get a number of studies on how, especially in the leisure sphere, institutions of consumption address the individual consumer as embodied self. Places such as the restaurant, the spa, the beauty centre, the tourist village, the theme park and the fitness gyms are becoming key institutions for the production and display of legitimate embodied selves. Concentrating on a few examples, the paper discusses these institutions considering how participants address their role as individual consumers of increasingly standardized products. Finally, I conclude on the normalization of consumers’ subjectivity, dealing with how body/mind-self dualism has come to be rendered in contemporary Western consumer culture.
Efrat Tseëlon – University of Leeds
The Challenge of Ethical Fashion
Ethical fashion, fair trade, and other grass root movements are among the most human faces of globalization, which has done more than anything to erode the sense of community and solidarity. The desire to improve the human rights record of fashion-producing plants in the developing world that supplies the Western world’s demand for fashion variety is a noble mission. However it is not enough.
The fashion world is in denial of the real unethical aspects of fashion, using the trend towards “ethical fashion” as a kind of a “conscience tax” or a “conscience laundering” tool, as a diversion and distraction from the industry and the system’s more cynical face. While a debate on the ethics of fashion is a welcome addition to the landscape of perspectives looking at this form of social activity, concern about employment rights in countries to which production has been outsourced masks a whole range of unethical issues connected to fashion closer to home. A partial list includes the rights of migrant textile workers in Europe, the environmental damage inflicted by certain ethical solutions, the toxic aspects of the fashion and beauty industry, animal welfare, and the images and role models it presents to the consuming eye, especially the vulnerable eye of teenagers, who are its most loyal followers.
Two fundamental features of fashion are:
1. The reliance on obsolescence
2. The fetishisation of emotions, desires and values into material objects.
Both look incompatible with the ethical mission.
The paper will examine them and their compatibility with the ethical agenda.