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Theoretical texts: Society of the Spectacle (1967) - Guy Debord

Fictional texts: American Psycho (1991) - Bret Easton Ellis


Consumerism is the tendency of people to identify strongly with products or services they consume, especially those with commercial brand names and obvious status-enhancing appeal, e.g. an expensive automobile, rich jewellery. It is a pejorative term which most people deny, having some more specific excuse or rationale for consumption than the idea that they're "compelled to consume".

To those who accept the idea of consumerism, these products are not seen as valuable in themselves, but rather as social signals or a reducer of anxiety about belonging. The older term "conspicuous consumption" spread to describe this in the United States in the 1960s, but was soon linked to larger debates about media theory, culture jamming, and its corollary productivism. --http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/consumerism

Conspicuous consumption

Conspicuous consumption is a term introduced by the American economist Thorstein Veblen, in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Conspicuous consumption is a symptom observed in individuals in any society where over-consumption has become a social norm or expectation. The term is not used to describe such personal disorders as eating disorders, but is generally reserved for those forms of consumption that seem to be fully motivated by social factors.

Regarded as an addiction
It has been discussed widely since the 1960s, including most often as a form of addiction arising from consumerism but also from productivism where this encourages the production of excess unwanted goods, which must be consumed to justify continued production. More recently it has been implicated as a cause of obesity, and of some mental illness especially bulimia. Some consider it to be a world health problem, especially in developed nations. Political movements, e.g. the Greens, have specifically criticized waste-promoting policies (e.g. the dirty subsidy) that encourage over-consumption.

In marketing-terminology the term conspicuous consumption refers to the consumption of goods for the sake of displaying wealth, power, or prestige to others. Usually it denotes luxury goods that are expensive rather than cheap everyday items.

In the context of psychoactive substances
Some link this also to chemical addiction, arguing that self-titration of psychoactive substances, or "self-medication", becomes near-pandemic in cultures where pleasure-seeking behaviors have reached such pathological proportions. Inflamed hedonic expectations among the affected population can then result in normalizing of anti-social, borderline and narcissistic behaviors as economic and political processes, e.g. a "moral panic" leading to mob violence, support for religious fundamentalism, or an unexamined push to a war. An alternate view is that most civilizations have accepted one or more drugs of choice and embedded them into their society, e.g. caffeine, coca, alcohol, tobacco, peyote, cannabis, and that it is encounters with strange poorly-socialized drugs that lead in general to these unpredictable behaviors, not the consumption urge as such. Historically, epidemics of pathological consumption among large groups have ended when a group exhausted available resources or when the pathology of consumption led to self-destructive behavior.

A possible historical case: Easter Island
Historically, epidemics of pathological consumption among large groups have ended when a group exhausted available resources or when the pathology of consumption led to self-destructive behavior. For instance, anthropologists believe that Easter Island became depopulated because its warring tribes eventually cut down all of each other's trees, which destroyed its ecology - the trees of course were not wasted necessarily but consumed as fuel, or to make war canoes.

Applications in activism
An extreme view is that over-consumption threatens emotional destabilization of the global population, and that behavioral health professionals need to document and analyze the large group etiology that develops a subculture of pathological self-medication. This is seen to have impacts far beyond the immediate consumer group. While resources to confront the crisis must be developed within geographic areas inhabited by the affected population, interest and motivation is often prompted and facilitated by efforts from outside the areas most affected. Such methods as boycotts or moral purchasing, for instance, often exclude dealings with a population pathologically consuming an ecosystem or species - these are often successful at ending such consumption, e.g. European Union boycotts of Canadian seal fur from the Newfoundland seal hunt. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspicuous_consumption [May 2005]

Dawn of the Dead (1978) - George A. Romero

  • Dawn of the Dead (1978) - George A. Romero [Amazon.com]
    George Romero's 1978 follow-up to his classic Night of the Living Dead is quite terrifying and gory (those zombies do like the taste of living flesh). But in its own way, it is just as comically satiric as the first film in its take on contemporary values. This time, we follow the fortunes of four people who lock themselves inside a shopping mall to get away from the marauding dead and who then immerse themselves in unabashed consumerism, taking what they want from an array of clothing and jewelry shops, making gourmet meals, etc. It is Romero's take on Louis XVI in the modern world: keep the starving masses at bay and crank up the insulated indulgence. Still, this is a horror film when all is said and done, and even some of Romero's best visual jokes (a Hare Krishna turned blue-skinned zombie) can make you sweat. --Tom Keogh for Amazon.com

    Zombies, malls, and the consumerism debate
    In George Romero's satirical film about consumerism, Dawn of the Dead (1978), an American shopping mall becomes the site of battles between the zombies who have overrun the country, four human "survivors" who exterminate the zombies and appropriate the mall for themselves, and a gang of marauding bikers which, in the movie's violent climax, seeks to take over the mall. These battles serve as a useful, if melodramatic metaphor for recent theoretical disputes over the nature and value of consumerism, disputes which remain of central importance among cultural critics of differing political persuasions. At the risk of crudely dichotomizing, these critics have tended to affiliate with one of two camps with respect to what might be called the "consumerism debate." --Stephen Harper, University of Glasgow, George Romero's Dawn of the Dead Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2002, Volume 1, Issue 2 http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2002/harper.htm [May 2004]

    See also: George Romero

    Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) - Thorstein Veblen

  • Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) - Thorstein Veblen [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

    The Theory of the Leisure Class is a book, first published in 1899, by the American economist Thorstein Veblen while he was a professor at the University of Chicago. Veblen, in this book, coined the now-common concepts of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure.

    He defined conspicuous consumption as the waste of money and/or resources by people to display a higher status than others. One famous example he used was the use of silver utensils at meals, even though utensils made of cheaper material worked just as well or, in some cases, better.

    He defined conspicuous leisure as the waste of time by people to give themselves higher status. As examples, he noted that to be a "gentleman", a man must study such things as philosophy and the fine arts, which have no economic value in themselves. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_the_Leisure_Class [Jun 2006]

    Evelina (1778) - Fanny Burney

    Evelina (1778) - Fanny Burney [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

    Book Description
    Frances Burney's first and most enduringly popular novel is a vivid, satirical, and seductive account of the pleasures and dangers of fashionable life in late eighteenth-century London. As she describes her heroine's entry into society, womanhood and, inevitably, love, Burney exposes the vulnerability of female innocence in an image-conscious and often cruel world where social snobbery and sexual aggression are played out in the public arenas of pleasure-gardens, theatre visits, and balls. But Evelina's innocence also makes her a shrewd commentator on the excesses and absurdities of manners and social ambitions--as well as attracting the attention of the eminently eligible Lord Orville. Evelina, comic and shrewd, is at once a guide to fashionable London, a satirical attack on the new consumerism, an investigation of women's position in the late eighteenth century, and a love story. The new introduction and full notes to this edition help make this richness all the more readily available to a modern reader.

    Evelina is a novel written by English author Fanny Burney in 1778.

    Evelina, the title character, is abandoned by her father, Sir John Belmont, who thought that he would receive a fortune from marriage. Evelina's mother dies in childbirth, and Evelina is raised in seclusion by Mr. Villars, her guardian. When Evelina grows up to be a beautiful and intelligent woman, she travels to London to visit a friend, Mrs. Mirvan. She is introduced to society, falls in love with the handsome Lord Orville. However, her ill-bred relatives, and in particular her vulgar grandmother, Madame Duval, as well as the obstinate attentions of Sir Clement Willoughby frustrate her happiness. To attain her proper station in London society, Evelina's friends contact Sir Belmont to get him to acknowledge his daughter. Belmont announces that, in fact, he has had his daughter with him since her mother's death. It turns out that the nurse had passed her own child to Sir Belmont. Belmont discovers the imposition, recognizes Evelina, and she marries Lord Orville.

    The novel was a great success in Burney's own lifetime. Her father was a friend of the leading men of the age, and Frances herself knew most of these distinguished writers and artists. None of her subsequent novels achieved the success of Evelina, but it was very well received, and the novel compares favorably with the early novels of Jane Austen.

    A great deal of attention has been focused on Evelina since the 1980's, as Burney has reached a wide audience and critical reappraisal. Some critics have seen the novel as autobiography, as Burney felt unacknowledged by her famously strict father. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evelina [Jun 2005]

    The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (1997) - Thomas Frank

    The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (1997) - Thomas Frank [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

    In his book-length essay The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank explores the ways in which Madison Avenue co-opted the language of youthful '60s rebellion. It is "the story," Frank writes, "of the bohemian cultural style's trajectory from adversarial to hegemonic; the story of hip's mutation from native language of the alienated to that of advertising." This appropriation had wide-ranging consequences that deeply transformed our culture--consequences that linger in the form of '90s "hip consumerism." (Think of Nike using the song "Revolution" to sell sneakers, or Coca-Cola using replicas of Ken Kesey's bus to peddle Fruitopia.)

    This is no simplistic analysis of how the counterculture "sold out" to big business. Instead, Frank shows how the counterculture and business culture influenced one another. In fact, he writes, the counterculture's critique of mass society mimicked earlier developments in business itself, when a new generation of executives attacked the stultified, hierarchical nature of corporate life. Counterculture and business culture evolved together over time--until the present day, when they have become essentially the same thing. According to Frank, the '60s live on in the near-archetypal dichotomy of "hip" and "square," now part of advertising vernacular, signifying a choice between consumer styles.

    Corporatisation of Cool

    Thomas Frank on the corporatisation of cool, on how ersatz "rebellion" (and ersatz "authenticity") is the engine of consumerism, and the false hip-square dichotomy created by advertising: [via http://dev.null.org/blog/archive.cgi/2003/01/17]

    So it offers not just soap that gets your whites whiter, but soap that liberates, radios of resistance, carnivalesque cars and counter-hegemonic hamburgers.... If our fragmented society has anything approaching a master narrative, it is more of a master conflict. We are in constant struggle - not against communism, but against the spirit-crushing, fakeness-pushing power of consumer society. And we resist by watching Madonna videos or by consorting with more authentic people in our four-wheel-drives, or by celebrating consumers who do these things.

    People worked harder and longer in the '90s than in previous decades; they saw more ads on more surfaces than before; they ran up greater household debts; they had less power than at any time in the past 50 years over the conditions in which they lived and worked. In such an environment our anger mounted. And from the eternally outraged populist right to the liberation marketers of Madison Avenue, those who prevailed in the past decade have been those who learnt to harness this anger most effectively.

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