More on consumer disappointment

by Rob Horning

29 December 2008


In Shifting Involvements, Albert Hirschman takes a prolonged look at the ways that disappointment is built in to consumerism. Drawing on Tibor Scitovsky’s The Joyless Economy, Hirschman argues that what is pleasurable is not merely the use value of the goods and services we buy, but the process of their taking us from dissatisfaction to satisfaction. That move is what we register as pleasure, not the fact of being in the satisfied state itself. If we merely remain satisfied on account of something we’ve purchased, then we experience no joy. From this point of view, pleasure hinges on our capacity to be dissatisfied.

This may be in part why needs turn out to be such slippery things, in that we often think we want thing until we have it, whereupon we discover that we really want something else. This movement to disappointment may be less a matter of fussiness than a protective move to guard our capacity for pleasure. Hirschman points out that “we never operate in terms of a comprehensive hierarchy of wants established by some psychologist surveying the multifarious pursuits and ‘needs’ of mankind.” In other words, the hierarchy is always in flux, always in the process of being articulated through our life activities—in consumer society, predominantly through shopping. We discover who we are and what we want in the process of shopping for ourselves. Shopping becomes the end in itself and the acquired goods mere souvenirs of the pleasure process. (This is the “experience economy” that zealous marketers frequently champion.) But at the same time, we have an innate tendency to be disappointed with what we buy, to preserve the capacity to renew our expectations for surprise, for a repeat of the satisfaction-seeking process. When shopping and identity are conflated, as they are in a consumer society, the result is an inherent, structural tendency for us to be continually disappointed in who we think we are, accompanied with an increasing tendency to try to solve that problem through acquiring more stuff. Journeys of self-discovery launched in the mall are almost by definition never-ending. There are good reasons for our identities to be somewhat fluid and open-ended, but anchoring them to consumer goods subjects them to a distorted set of criteria that undermine any sense of stable accomplishment. Our self-concept gets linked instead to the vagaries of the fashion cycle rather than to our own rhythm of personal growth. We become alienated from our own development and start to feel like we harbor multiple personalities, all of them shallow and fickle.

A similar paradox adheres to our efforts to customize consumer goods. These efforts seem to make the product more durable and less prone to dissatisfy in that it is reshaped to express and suit our needs, and in that we remain actively engaged with it, remaking it afresh. But the customization process may in fact reflect a dissatisfaction with the good’s durable usefulness—we want to distract ourselves from its humdrum utility and render it more exciting, though this excitement can only be short-lived, more so than its utility in most cases. Hirschman points out that in many durable items, we long for a “certain amount of ‘built-in obsolescence,’ ” since this makes for a “radical shift in the pleasure-comfort balance.” Replacing a good gives pleasure; getting more use out of something we already have merely supplies unrecognized comfort. By customizing something, and tying it to an expression of identity in a particular moment, we can build in an object’s obsolescence by ourselves, without having to rely on the thoughtfulness of manufacturers making goods shoddy for us. By foregrounding a good’s ephemeral function of articulating an ever-fleeting sense of self, we undermine its lasting quality of being prosaically useful and make it far more likely that we will want to replace it before it’s entirely kaputt. By fusing our personal fashion whims to a durable item, we make its depreciation more recognizable; it becomes something that more evidently falls out of date. It becomes something that gets used up rather than being merely useful. Customization, then, is a matter of adapting useful things to disposability.

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