The New Sumptuary Laws for Modern-day Subjects

As a whole, the advertising industry’s main function is to convince us that consumption is our only means to happiness. Regardless of whether we pay any attention to the specific products urged upon us, the cumulative effect of the ubiquitous fog of ads in which we live is to posit the insane world where owning the right product will make us irresistibly charismatic, sexually potent, eternally safe and healthy, and perfectly secure in our sense of self. As John Berger explains, advertising “as a system only makes a single proposal. It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. . . It recognizes nothing except the power to acquire. All other human faculties or needs are made subsidiary to this power.” (Ways of Seeing, Pelican, 1972)

At their core, ads try to make it seem like common sense that people have an insatiable desire to possess more things, and this inherent human desire thus renders the consumer society historically inevitable. Throughout time, humans have just been waiting for the technical ability to mass produce push-up bras and cigarettes and iPods and antidepressants and all the other wonderful things our society offers, and now that it has arrived, we live at the glorious end of history. What could possibly be better than the world we live in now? You can buy anything you can dream of. Thus, in a textbook on advertising, James B. Twitchell can comfortably assert as an eternal natural fact what is actually the crowning achievement of the ad industry: the vindication of homo emptor, man as buyer, and of shopping as a fundamental, if not the quintessential, human activity. “We have created a surfeit of things because we enjoy the process of getting and spending,” he blithely remarks. “The desire [for things] is ancient. Kings and princes once thought they could solve problems by amassing things; we now join them.” (Adcult USA, Columbia UP, 1996).

Twitchell’s remark touches on what has long been a favorite theme of apologists for the ad industry, that the consumer society has brought the power of kings and princes to ordinary people, liberating them from tyranny while allowing them to enjoy a regal prosperity. We can trace this fable to England, the first nation to undergo what has been called a “consumer revolution” (see The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth Century England, Indiana UP, 1982). In the bad old days, consumption was the province of society’s elites, an aristocracy that jealously guarded its privilege, which made for a clear, unmistakable sign of preeminent social position. The hoi polloi were barred from conspicuous consumption first and foremost by the lack of purchasing power. On a subsistence wage that keeps the specter of your child’s starvation ever present, it’s hard to care how fancy your tea set is.

But as imperial success abroad brought greater purchasing power to the nascent middle class, church leaders felt obliged to denounce even more vehemently the evils of luxury, a virtual synonym for vice in eighteenth century England, and reiterate the traditional call for an austere, Spartan life, unfettered by the lures of a fallen world. Those enamored of luxury were likely to become preoccupied with sensual pleasure rather than serving god or country; such self-indulgence was sure to undermine the empire, just as it destroyed the decadent Romans. Mercantilist economists also denounced luxury, which was thought to impoverish a nation’s gold and silver supply in exchange for imported foreign frivolities. Heretical arguments such as the one Mandeville made in his notorious Fable of the Bees (1714), that private vices like addiction to consumer goods lead to public benefits like full employment, were vehemently denounced at all levels of society. (Of course, this same position is a core tenet of economic policy today, and advertisers take great pride in fomenting the consumer demand that allegedly leads to endless economic growth.)

But not surprisingly, admonitions from the pulpit only went so far in saving ordinary folks from sinful luxury. The last line of defense for aristocratic privilege (and home industry) lay in sumptuary laws, which restricted according to social class what sort of clothes one could wear and things one could own. While these ill-conceived strictures were rarely enforced, they made explicit the state’s inclination to reserve luxuries for the powerful, and thus made it possible, after improved economic conditions and changing economic philosophy made sumptuary laws unsupportable, for commercial interests and their advertisers to define the average person’s ability to consume more as a kind of political freedom. What more could people want then to be able to buy whatever they wanted? (This principle still governs our current notions of freedom: we know we are free because we get to exercise our freedom of choice in the marketplace.) And with the markers of class now available to all, free consumption seemed to promise the end of the oppressive social hierarchy.

But, of course, it did no such thing. Allowing people more options to consume doesn’t transfer any real power to them; the sources of wealth and influence remain the same. And since the marking function of luxury goods is not truly affected, the class structure is not threatened, either. As anthropologists never tire of telling us, commodities function as a kind of language that permits all sorts of social communication (see, for example, Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood, The World of Goods, Basic Books, 1979). With increased consumerism and more commodities in circulation, the language of consumption only acquires a larger vocabulary, able to articulate class distinctions even more thoroughly, with even greater precision than before. And what’s more, as eager new consumers, the lower class voluntarily participated in a system that marked them as inferior, allowing them to recognize that status as their own fault rather than something imposed on them. This, in turn, made them that much less likely to rebel against the existing order. Plus, this neutralized consumer class would interpret their unhappiness as the consequence of lacking some new, special commodity (which, after all, embodied their chance at social mobility) rather than a lack of a significant role in society.

These inexperienced shoppers found, to their dismay, that every purchase they made in an attempt to be more fashionable only announced their lesser status more markedly. So while the lower classes were certainly relieved by the freedom from penuriousness wrought by the new economy, they most likely experienced the expanded freedom to consume as an anxious burden, just as many consumers today still know the dreadful limbo of optional paralysis, the impatient uncertainty of buyer’s remorse, the narcissistic vertigo of status uncertainty. Would-be consumers, long taught to embrace frugality as a path to heaven, needed to be convinced that consumption was worth the trouble, that it could be an arena they might someday master.

This is where advertising comes in. Ads try to convince people that freedom from need only sets the stage for the freedom to want. They are obsequious in their eagerness to help novice consumers negotiate the market, promising clearer explanations of what all these goods can offer you. But advertising’s function, most simply put, is to assign meaning to objects, not clarify a significance that already exists: “Giving objects their identity, and thus a perceived value, is advertising’s unique power.” (Twitchell, 13). Advertising saturates goods with meanings, often multilayered and contradictory, so no one would ever mistake them for something that’s simply useful. While the residue of sumptuary laws and their class overtones likely added the allure of the forbidden to goods, it’s really these ad-induced meanings that people became eager to consume. The desire for things may be ancient, but the desire to possess their meanings is new, supplanting interest in the thing itself the more prevalent ads become. Its fantasy value renders its use value superfluous. This is most obviously the case with one of the earliest of mass-produced commodities, the patent medicine, which literally consists of nothing but what properties ads successfully assign to it, and is thus the purest way to consume the transformative fantasies that ads offer. There is no actual use value to interfere with its fantasy value.

As ads multiply a commodity’s available meanings, the marketplace becomes more, not less, confusing; it grows more thicketed with traps, potential gaffes, and certain disappointments. Yet we come to depend on ads more even as they obfuscate, since their pervasiveness drowns out other potential sources for meaning. Yet, while ads shade individual commodities with all sorts of telling nuances — ever more minutely articulated portraits of the good life and finely calibrated degrees of cool to keep fashion’s wheel turning — they have the ultimate effect of flattening all hopes to a single vain gesture: “All hopes are gathered together, made homogenous, simplified,” Berger argues, “so that they become the intense yet vague, magical yet repeatable promise offered in every purchase. No other kind of hope or satisfaction or pleasure can any longer be envisaged within the culture of capitalism.”

The tragedy in all this is that an opportunity for real freedom was lost in the late 18th century. For the first time, a majority of English people did not have to worry about starvation. But rather than liberating people from having to worry about acquiring anything and freeing them to broaden the scope of their activity beyond brute accumulation, to perhaps embrace nobler pursuits, prosperity and the consumer revolution that followed made more people even more obsessed with possessions than ever before. Luckily for us, advertising ceaselessly labors to convince us that we’ve missed out on nothing much at all.

It’s become basically impossible for us to opt out of the advertising system, to reject the desires it presents to us, to speak a different language amongst ourselves than the one created by commodities. We use this language not only to communicate who we are and what we value to others, but more scarily, it’s all we have left to communicate who we are to ourselves. You must consume to have any sense of yourself at all, now that the language of self-expression is incommodities and not in activities. The moral discourse against luxury has been replaced completely with what Baudrillard cheerlessly calls the “fun morality”, an obligation to be perpetually pursuing the happiness delineated in ads. “Modern man spends less and less time of life in production, and more and more in the continuous production and creation of personal needs and of personal well-being” in an effort to understand himself (Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, Sage, 1998).

No longer actively contributing to anything larger than himself, modern man is instead utterly self-absorbed, searching for a private satisfaction unique to him in a web of meanings that comes entirely from the outside, but which he experiences as his most innate and intimate desires, stubbornly and permanently unfulfilled. Sumptuary laws have been turned inside out, and we are now forbidden not to consume, forbidden from being free of an image. Whatever you own, no matter how utilitarian it is for you, will say something significant about you to someone else, which in turn determines how you are treated, and what social possibilities are open to you. I don’t think of my Toyota as anything other than what gets me from point A to point B, but what I think of it doesn’t matter. It’s the judgments others make, and where these position me on the finely calibrated scale of social class that matters. The result is the same though, just as in the 16th century: what you wear succinctly expresses who you are. Nothing in fact has been changed, except that the social indignity made plainly manifest by sumptuary laws has been perfectly disguised so that people can experience consumption, an expression of their total alienation, as a kind of freedom.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.