It’s all one big plastic hassle

I have a post up at Generation Bubble about “reflexively defiant consumerism” — a concept coined by two marketing professors that they saw as a fusion of postmodern critical theory and consumer protection initiatives. It’s basically the “prosumer” idea of subverting the marketers who want to tell you what to do. It’s obviously an outdated notion; few would argue today that marketers are forcing specific identities on us anymore. Advertisers are probably content to know that we are playing on the consumerist field, and just hope will play with their ball. (Who can resist an unnecessary football metaphor as the Super Bowl approaches?)

My hunch in general is that self-consciousness about how we consume means they have us right where they want us, thinking about how to articulate our identity through consumerism and not through other modes. Douglas Holt’s excellent 2002 paper “Why Do Brands Cause Trouble” (wish I could link it, but my searches haven’t turned up an ungated one) bears that out. He posits a dialectical model of identity and oppositional consumerism that seems to suggest resistance to certain brands tends to produce more credibility for other ones, and that production is now built into the consumerist system of “post-postmodernism.” Reflexively defiant consumers are just the avant-garde producers of new consumerist meanings within the code. The sovereignty they convince themselves that they have earned by pseudoresistance is actually more bound up than ever with consumerism. “Authenticity” becomes nothing but a marketing concept; it can no longer serve an an orienting ideal. It is, as Holt argues, “becoming extinct.”

Worse, we confront sovereignty inflation:

To feel sovereign, postmodern consumers must adopt a never-ending project to create an individuated identity through consumption. This project requires absorbing an ever-expanding supply of fashions, cultural texts, tourist experiences, cuisines, mass cultural icons, and the like. As a result, we are in the midst of a widespread inflation in the symbolic work required to achieve what is perceived as real sovereignty.

In other words, as a character in the 1968 film Psych-Out declares, “It’s all one big plastic hassle.”

I would add that Web 2.0 has become the technological expression of that system, the means of production that allows consumers to make meanings on a sort of industrial scale, thanks to the increasingly hegemonic notion that identity (or individuality) must be mediated online to secure the requisite social recognition and the sense of sovereignty.

Holt thinks that eventually brands will exhaust all possible tropes of authenticity and will have to turn to genuine community action and resource provision to secure customer loyalty and make their brands stand for something admirable. I am skeptical of this; I think the contrivance of pseudo-authenticity is limitless, and the absorption of millions of new mini-brand managers on social networks and the like serves to manufacture new ruses at an inexhaustible rate. We have become the brainstorming consultants for corporations, only they don’t have to pay us for the labor.