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Status consumption and autonomy

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Monday, Aug 15, 2005

As Harvard women’s studies professor Juliet Schor would have it, the real explanation for virtually all our consumption decisions is status, a frightfully shallow motive that we seek to mask from ourselves with a variety of alibis: practicality, utility, quality, thriftiness, personal satisfaction, and so on. People vigorously reject the idea that they consume out of conformity with their neighbors or to send a status message to strangers they permit and expect to judge them. Accepting those motives will blow down the house of cards that has us believing we are all unique individuals with special unique important destinies to fulfull by eating at the Olive Garden and shopping at Wegmans. And more important, it undermines the fragile illusion of personal autonomy that expending our sliver of purchasing power gives us. The crux of the post-war consumer boom lies in this particular realization: consumer choice makes us feel free, while political enfranchisement doesn’t. And when consumer choice turn out to be in fact circumscribed by our status anxieties, it scandalizes out rational mind, which has staked much of our sense of personal freedom and potentiality on the idea that what we buy can really define us and help us fulfill our life mission of realizing an identity.


Assume that there is only so much mental energy people have for maintaining the various illusions necessary to make a worldview cohere. If Schor (who wrote The Overworked American and The Overspent American, ruminations on the ultimately unsatisfying cycle of “work and spend”) is right, the bulk of the ideological energy in America is being spent on these sorts of shopping rationalizations—sapping away the energy necessary to prop up such other macro-illusions as “we live in a democracy” or “my priviacy is protected” or “the government represents me” or “corporations care about me” or what have you, although I suppose preserving the illusion that class is not the defining feature of American life goes a long way toward protecting those other illusions about democracy and freedom. Better to say that all these ideological imperatives (individuality, democracy, privacy, egalitarianism, corporate benevolence) intersect and sustain each other in a seamless web that is woven jointly by advertising, the media, our entertainments, and the logic of our own actions. This web is a psychological safety net, and we have as much invested in it as the politicians and corporations that profit from it at our ultimate expense. We surrender power and insight into the operation of things for the comfort these illusions provide, the illusions of autonomy they afford.


The most alluring myth of the status-free classless society may be the automony it seems to provide—the illusion that what I do has no impact on others and is not impacted by what others do, which, incidentally, is an illusion that leads many social causes founder. Not worrying about the environment stems from the same ideological fiction that has us believing we don’t really care about what our neighbors are driving. But of course we do worry about both things, often in moments we try to hide from ourselves or repress—the high value we place on individuality tars conformist consumerism and social activism with the same brush, makes them appear equally craven sell-outs of our divine right and duty to do whatever the hell we want. The companies that profit by consumerism know how to take advantage of that—they provide channels in which conusmers can vent their defiance at conformity—it contrives ways that permit them to think they are rebelling while conforming. Social crusaders—people who want to end resource wasting and global warming and animal abuse and so on—have figured out a way to make their causes seem like expressions of individual autonomy.

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