The Myth of the Rebel Consumer

by Rob Horning

16 June 2004


As this column will be devoted primarily to an exploration of consumerism, it seems appropriate to first explain what I mean by “consumerism”. First, though, I should probably apologize for using the term at all. As Raymond Williams, in his analysis of advertising, points out, the very word reinforces the tendency to ignore the various uses people find for the things they buy. Calling a person a “consumer” suggests that whatever that person acquires is somehow destroyed in its acquisition; it is used up, “consumed” the way a banned book may be said to be consumed in a bonfire. The term “consumer” figures a person as fundamentally wasteful, as one who takes the productivity and creativity embodied in a material object and makes it vanish. Without potential for productivity or creativity themselves, “consumers” can only be seen as passive (See Raymond Williams, “Advertising: the Magic System,” in Problems in Materialism and Culture, Verso, 1980).

So to talk of consumers, consumerism, or our consumer society implies that good, ordinary people like ourselves constitute the “masses”, that ignorant or philistine breed of sheep that does what it is told, desires what it is programmed to desire, and busily goes about reproducing the existing mental structures required to perpetuate the hegemony of multinational corporations. Of course, that’s not what we are. We are all creative and sensitive people. So what should we be called, particularly if we wish to maintain the position that we are not simply interpolated as consumers by advertising, mass media, outlet malls and superstores? (See Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements, Marion Noyers, 1978)

Williams finds it preferable to conceive of ourselves as “users”, rather than “consumers”; individual users that acquire goods in order to put them to creative use to fulfill our social needs. Such a designation corresponds well to that trend amongst cultural studies theorists for celebrating the creative potential inherent in buying things (See Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press, 1984; John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture, Unwin Hyman, 1989, or Paul Willis, Common Culture, Open University Press, 1990). Our purchases can express subversion, radical appropriation, or collective affiliation. That’s right: I can use my thrift store purchase of a Herb Alpert record to express my dismay at the current state of the music industry, and you can use your coffee grinder at home to thumb your nose at Starbucks. We can make important demands for social change by restructuring our collective consumer demands. We can use our dollar to demand free-range chickens and hormone-free milk; and if that doesn’t succeed in transforming America into a more humane society, we can even write a letter to Mother Jones to voice our frustration.

But by making pseudo-political statements through the manufactured artifacts of our culture, through the exercise of our free choice, are we truly users, or are we simply being useful? Expressing our politics through what we buy is no politics at all; at best it is but a vote of assent for the existing economic arrangements. Were we to value such a debased notion of freedom, we would be celebrating the way capitalism tries to cheat us out of more meaningful freedoms, foremost of which is the freedom to question the way modes of production are organized. If we forget that what we buy is insignificant as long as we continue to buy something, then we fall prey to one of our society’s favorite myths: that corporations actually value their customers as individuals, that they really believe that the customer is right.

Perhaps we are right when we complain to Frito Lay that a bag of potato chips is stale; but we are assuredly wrong if we question whether potato chips should be served to children in public schools. Perhaps we are right when we return a broken DVD player to Best Buy; but certainly we are wrong if we organize our neighbors against such big-box warehouse-store monstrosities opening up in our neighborhoods. And we are always right when we ask for no pickles on our Big Mac; but we are definitely wrong if we pause to lament the rapid disappearance of restaurants that don’t serve french fries.

So when we use our purchasing power to try to enfranchise ourselves, we are simply being used. But that’s probably not what cultural critics have in mind when they celebrate the potential for creativity in consumption. French sociologist Michel De Certeau has in mind the off-label uses individuals often devise for the otherwise stultifying and homogenous products made available to us. He argues that “the procedures of contemporary consumption appear to constitute a subtle art of ‘renters’ who know how to insinuate their countless differences into the dominant text.” (ibid). We are thus “at play with the order that contains” social activity, exploiting the “innumerable connections between manipulating and enjoying.”

The general absence of examples of this kind of exhilarating play makes it difficult to imagine what De Certeau means, but I would guess he wants to celebrate triumphant moments such as these: when the underclass devalues the status symbols of the privileged few by wearing gaudy and flamboyant imitations of its preferred brands; or when fraternity boys wear rugged work boots to demonstrate how glad they are that they will never really need to wear them; or when pseudo-intellectuals (like myself) watch reruns of sitcoms on television not to laugh with them, but to laugh at the shows’ crudity and to measure their own supposed superiority to the “regular” audience by the critical distance they are able to maintain.

Perhaps all these subversive acts should be celebrated, though it’s hard to imagine who would feel threatened by it. In truth, this view aligns with the pluralism that modern corporations themselves have come to endorse. One needs only think of the proliferation of cable channels or the user-driven commercialized infotainment available on the Internet. Subversive uses and appropriations are already incorporated into the structure of these systems — corporations don’t mind how you play as long as you play on their field.

For as long as we play on their field, we continue to be the sorts of people their industries require. And for my purposes, that is what consumerism is: a series of behaviors that identifies us to the existing order and fixes us in it while granting us a sense of identity that feels natural, that feels autonomously constructed. Never mind if these identities seem conformist or mass-produced — we won’t know enough about anybody else besides ourselves to notice. Our access to goods allows us to build an identity without the hassles of dealing with actual other people. Again, we are all creative and sensitive people. The unique, imaginary playpens we each construct for ourselves in our narcissistic world of goods proves to ourselves just how creative and sensitive we are. Consumerism is the driving social force that seeks to ensure that each of our playpens remains isolated from the others; it is the wet nurse that comes when we cry, hungry for real experience, only to feed us more formula.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.

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