Permission to Consume

by Rob Horning

23 July 2010


In this interview of Andrew Potter (whose book, The Authenticity Hoax, I still really need to read), he makes an interesting point about what sort of rhetoric supplies us with the permission to consume. To put that it in a more jargony way, what sort of ideological climate is necessary to naturalize a consumerist orientation—make us see shopping quests and the accumulation of stuff as normal, inevitable personal goals?

Behavioral economics and marketing research explores some practical aspects of generating permission to consume. First of all, they acknowledge such reluctance exists, and that wants are not simply inherently infinite, as neoclassical economics assumes. That is, they accept that creating demand is an actual problem (sort of obvious, otherwise marketing as a discipline wouldn’t exist, but don’t tell that to a Say’s Law zealot). And then there are nitty-gritty behavior studies of the reluctance people have in pulling the trigger on purchases and how to overcome it, the sort of research Paco Underhill and other marketing gurus proselytize about—how to create the appropriate buying environment with music and positioning of goods and so on; how to counteract optional paralysis; how to weaken our psychological defenses to persuasion.
But there is a larger sense in which we are reluctant to consume that goes behind jittery resistance at the point of sale. Potter maintains that “we have a deep cultural aversion to buying things on the open market. We think we live in a consumer society, but we don’t. We live in an anti-consumer society, which is why we feel the need to “launder” our consumption through a moral filter.” That cultural aversion stems from the way market interactions depersonalize us. In the “open market” we are all interchangeable consumers, measured in terms of the greenness of our money. We are nobody special. Still, we want the process of exchange to respect and reflect our unique personal worth. Consumerism must compensate for that loss of dignity inherent in market transactions. One of the ways it achieves this is the ideological cant of customer service—the customer is important, always right, etc. Another, more far-reaching way consumerism compensates for capitalism is through its promise to constitute our identity anew, allowing us to establish an illusory ontological security by tapping into a pattern of shared meaning through goods.

So I think Potter goes too far in saying ours is an anti-consumer society; consumerism is certainly the governing, hegemonic ideology for most of us in our everyday life. Consumerism supplies the solution to most ordinary problems—problems which it helps give coherent shape to in the form of concrete needs for products: have a “need” (in quotes in deference to Baudrillard)? Buy something! Need purpose? Collect and curate! And to adopt Potter’s point, ethical purchasing and crypto-authenticity is a new solution consumerism supplies for the problem of anomie. Feel unreal? Buy something green! Buy something cool!

Like most consumerist needs, the need for authenticity is generated internally within the system of consumerism, which then endeavors to sate it. It doesn’t refer to an actual ontological need for some sort of real self-knowledge. Consumerism, as part of the modern social order, makes us conscious of our identity as something contingent and contrived, and it suggests that this fact should make us anxious. Then a series of solutions are offered, themselves contingent on changing fashions and the matriculation of trends through status hierarchies.

Some critics of authenticity blame the rise of Freudian depth psychology—the idea of real selves hidden behind the veil of the unconscious—as the root ideology that fuels the consumerist drive (to use psychoanalysis’s term) and spawns the concept of the packaged lifestyle. (See Adam Curtis’s disturbing BBC series, The Century of the Self, for example.) We are persuaded that finding the real self entails ongoing experiments with a variety of experiences, which ultimately become reified commodities. Other sociologists and anthropologists see it as a reflection of the decay of stable traditional markers of identity under the pressure of changing technologies. As we become more mobile, both geographically and in terms of class, personal identity is no longer ascribed but becomes open-ended, something we make for ourselves but which is never final or fully accepted but most be tested and approved socially, over and over again. The arena of consumerist display becomes one such place for this identity proving.

But to return to Potter’s point about a “moral filter”: how it became morally permissible to consume over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries is a subject that sociologist Colin Campbell (not the New York Rangers’ ex-coach) explores in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. The gist is that consumerism doesn’t come naturally to us; it’s an attitude that must be inculcated, reproduced. That remains true; consumerism must be perpetually reenchanted in the face of its obvious shortcomings and dangers.

Campbell argues that romanticism and the 18th century cult of sensibility (which saw virtue as the ability to demonstrate deep emotional responsiveness) bequeathed us a general, Walter Mitty-esque ethos of daydreaming for personal fulfillment, which allows for us to take pleasure in fantasies about ourselves prompted by consumer goods imbued with emotional overtones. Campbell writes, “The central insight required is the realization that individuals do not so much seek satisfaction from products as pleasure from the self-illusory experiences which they construct from their associated meanings.” But as a result, we take less pleasure in the actual consumption. So for example, we delight more in thinking of ourselves as the kind of person who will eat unpasteurized artisinal cheese than we do in tasting it. Or more radically, our anticipatory delight steals the pleasure from the sensual experience. Consumerist pleasure cannibalizes the pleasure inherent in things, preempts it. This leads to the chronic dissatisfaction with the stuff we have and the perpetual urge to want more—conveniently enough for an economy structured around ever-growing consumer demand.

But the moral permission to consume, he suggests (if I am remembering right), derives from the quasi-religious idea that a rich inner life is proof of having a strong intuitive moral faculty (which in turn reinforces one’s sense of being one of the elect, in the Calvinist sense). The cult of sensibility disseminated the idea that emotional responsiveness indicated a noble soul over and against aristocratic tradition that located nobility in bloodlines. Consumerism became a means of eliciting that responsiveness and supplying a medium through which it could be displayed. Making such displays then becomes mandatory, normative, the basis by which we show our willingness to belong to society and play by its rules. It becomes the modality of empathy; we show we understand one another by consuming the same sorts of things and reading one another’s consumption choices to a certain degree of fluency.

Self-consciousness begins to exponentially expand in the hall of mirrors we represent to one another: “I was looking back to see if you were looking back to see if I was looking back at you.” We feel compelled to share every consumer gesture and practice (and technology develops to encourage and sate that impulse) because it all has “relevance” to who we are, but we become alienated from ourselves to an additional degree, watching ourselves mediate the watching ourselves consume, and on and on. And this amplification seems to builds up an unmanageable pressure, a sense that one can’t catch up with oneself, with everything we can potentially be that’s promised by all the things and ideas and information there is to consume and record ourselves consuming and reacting to.

What’s needed now is permission not to consume in this sense—permission to ignore what Baudrillard calls “the code” and proceed in the world in a state of self-forgetting.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.


//Mixed media

The Moving Pixels Podcast Discusses 'Tales from the Borderlands Episode 2'

// Moving Pixels

"Our foray into the adventure-game-style version of the Borderlands continues.

READ the article