liberatory postmodernism and consumerism

From Liberatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption by A. Fuat Firat and Alladi Venkatesh, The Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Dec., 1995)

postmodernism’s liberatory potential cannot yet be achieved. The reason for this delay is the growing influence of the market — which is a modern institution still operating according to the commercial principles and criteria of the “economic” — during the contemporary dissolution of other modern institutions.

The market, they allege, preserves the universal rational subject with a predictable set of motivations and incentives — the market logic/capitalist logic of the subject that postmodernist/consumerist logic smashes. The market had been the last thing holding the old conception of the subject together — why neoclassical economical psychology ( a relic of this) seems so limited and foolish. But the consumerist subject is no more free than the universal-rational one. Its freedom may just as easily be registered by individuals as emptiness.

if we were to view the “consumer” in postmodern terms, the Cartesian subject on which our past images of the consumer have been based must be replaced by a different conception.

That is describing the shift from a capitalist logic of the subject to a consumerist one, in which consumption is heralded as production and consumers are productive with their immaterial labor while building on their limitless identity, attenuated through the code of social symbols for distinction. The active consumer liberates the passive prole, but the labor is still expropriated. Consumers don’t realize it because they believe they are working on self-fashioning.

While human beings have always engaged in consumption, the modern concept of consumption as separate from other phenomena seems to be rooted in other separations: the separation of home from workplace; the separation of time for work (job) from time for play (recreation, leisure); the separation of activities into public and private domains. With these separations has come the separation of consumption from production. Increasingly, activities in the private domain-that is, at home, during play-have come to be considered consumptive, and production is relegated to the public domain-the factory, the office, the workplace.

Consumerism begins in the collapse of the public-private, in the ability for social relations to be entirely public, for all exchange to be public and broadly significatory.

For example, artistic works that rebel against economic domination are themselves converted into economic objects and brought into the world of commodification, which the artistic work was created to oppose in the first place. This is an example of commodification of a critique in which the critique is rendered incapable of standing on a footing equal to and opposing its original target of attack. If the critique cannot be reappropriated suc- cessfully by the market economy, then it is marginal- ized. Thus, there are only two possibilities for cultural critique in a modern market: reappropriation or mar- ginalization. There is no way for the critique to mediate between the dominant and dominated, for it is always and already dealt with by the dominant mode.

Baudrillard’s point about critiquea lways already co-opted — no position from which one can critique consumerism, since the medium in which the critique is formulated presumes the critique is itself a consumer product. Hypocrisy is inherent, since all public discourse is tainted with marketing, posturing — it is assumed it is a self-positioning gesture –a self-branding move — rather than a “disinterested critique.”

A useful definition of marketing: “Marketing is an activity that fragments consumption signs and environmnets and reconfigures them through style and fashion.”


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