Bauman’s Consuming Life, cont’d

The corpse of this text has grown cold for me — read it to long ago to make much sense of my notes at this point. But I won’t be able to let it go until I dutifully record them here.

See if I can remember where I left off — the book is open on my desk to this marginal note: “consumption to consumerism — life organized around consumption as work, not as an opposition, though, but an integration.” Bauman is extrapolating from Mary Douglas’s work on the uses of consumption to organize communities and identity, to illustrate who is inside and who is outside and so on. Identity derives not from performing some useful production for society but from consuming in an overtly meaningful way respected by the community. Whether one has thee capability to consume in this way may or may not be a consequence of having done some productive work at some point. Bauman stresses that identity derives from consuming rather than producing in consumerist societies; I think it leads to consuming being synonymous with producing, albeit on the level of signs — as Baudrillard’s work suggests, consumerism is a matter of the production and circulation of signs; it requires a society in which signs are fungible, readily malleable, liquid, as Bauman would say.

This leads to a liquid self-identity, to insatiability as an index of one’s capacity for “life” — which is quantified in terms of commodities consumed.

On the road to the society of consumers, the human desire for stability has to turn, and indeed does turn, from a principal systemic asset into the system’s major, perhaps potentially fatal liability, a cause of disruption or malfunction. It could hardly be otherwise, since consumerism, in sharp opposition to the preceding forms of life, associates happiness not so much with the gratification of needs (as its ‘official transcripts’ tend to imply), as with an ever rising volume and intensity of desires, which imply in turn prompt use and speedy replacement of the objects intended and hoped to gratify them; it combines, as Don Slater aptly put it, an insatiability of needs with the urge and imperative ‘always to look to commodities for their satisfaction’

Consumer societies rely on subjects who are compelled to accelerate their consumption as a way of experiencing it as pleasurable and meaningful; this compulsion requires vigorous ideological support, as such behavior generates a great deal of insecurity, ontological and otherwise. “Consumer society thrives as long as it manages to render the non-satisfaction of its members (and so, in its own terms, their unhappiness) perpetual.” (47) It must manufacture frustration and make it seem like an appealing new commodity.

The ideologically glorified acceleration leads to an accompanying feeling of perpetual harriedness. pleasure-disappointment cycles accelerate with consumption, which fragments into a series of disconnected moments, each an attempt to achieve a “big bang” of retail joy. Bauman suggests that integration of desires over time into a coherent identity becomes secondary to this impulsivity. At the same time, this fragmentation masks the effort required to sustain pleasure from consumption. It militates against connoisseurship as effort, offers connoisseurship as superficial cataloging of experiences. (36) He quotes Eriksen: “information society offers cascades of decontextualized signs…it becomes increasingly difficult to create narratives, orders, developmental sequences. The fragments threaten to become hegemonic.”

Procrastination emerges as a form of quasi resistance, necessary for keeping options open in accordance to consumerist ethos, but generally experienced as shameful. Sustained effort on one particular endeavor is at the same time a forfeiture of other consumption chances; procrastination is a flawed attempt to pre-empt inefficient consumption. Bauman, anticipating Bifo, identifies “melancholy” as another involuntary mode of resistance. Both are ways to suspend investment and flatten affect in response to an overload of information and resulting combinatory possibilities for identity construction. Bauman calls melancholy the “life strategy of last resort” that results from “the fatal encounter between the obligation and compulsion to choose/the addiction to choosing, and the inability to choose” (42).

Bauman claims that in consumerist societies “the pursuit of happiness – the purpose most often invoked and used as bait in marketing campaigns aimed at boosting consumers’ willingness to part with their money (earned money, or money expected to be earned) – tends to be refocused from making things or their appropriation (not to mention their storage) to their disposal.” Bataille’s concern with expenditure perhaps ties in here — the hidden yet compelling need to waste and destroy through consumption that on its face presents itself as a mode of accumulation of stuff for consumers. Always the hidden tension between consumerism as amassing material property and consumerism as effective demand and consumption — clearing the surplus for subsequent cycles of capitalist production. I think this is the best way to understand the elevated cultural profile of hoarding. Damaged subjects refuse to inhabit the mandatory contradiction and begin accumulating without wasting.

“Expenditure” (waste, deciet, etc.) thus serves the collective purpose of supporting a capitalist system even if it appears irrational, impulsive, destructive, gratuitous, etc., at the individual level. These are not malfunctions, but proof of functioning.

In consumer societies, “frictionless” exchange serves as a model for sociality, since affective labor (like all labor) can’t be regarded as pleasurable in its own right. All performance, Bauman notes, are “solo performances.” Instead of the pleasures of collaboration, consumerism seeks to structure such affective labor involved in cooperation, politeness, etc., as a competitive attention war, a game of status. The ethic of convenience that accelerates consumption hypostatizes and becomes a way to interpret affective labor as something that one must capitalize on, not “give away” for its own sake, or sake of collective solidarity.

Hence this disturbing observation:

It is just as Emmanuel Levinas adumbrated when he mused that rather than being a contraption making peaceful and friendly human togetherness achievable for inborn egoists (as Hobbes suggested), ‘society’ may be a stratagem to make a self-centred, self-referential, egotistic life attainable for endemically moral human beings – through cutting out, neutralizing or silencing that haunting ‘responsibility for the Other’ which is born each time the face of the Other appears; indeed, a responsibility inseparable from human togetherness . . .

Being “social” in consumer capitalism means being empowered to be selfish in the face of what Levinas believes are self-evident moral obligations. Society lets discard them in the name of productivity, etc. “Society” means permitting individuals to rationalize their choice of convenience over responsibility to others, calling it productivity. (Seems applicable to this.) Convenience is the means by which more and more of everyday life is subsumed to the individualist ethos and morality of endlessly acquisitive capitalism.

The second chapter of Consuming Life deals with “flawed consumers,” the have-nots who are held responsible for their own condition because to think otherwise would be to upend the ideology about consumer choice being equivalent to democracy. It would expose the hollowness of one’s own power.

Consumption, again, is not for pleasure. Bauman suggests that consumers view goods as personal-brand investments. Consumption has become production; attention to semiotic value of goods a kind of necessary capital. But the key effect for Bauman is self-commoditization — regarding oneself as a consumer good in a society that only knows how to measure the value of consumer goods:

The crucial, perhaps the decisive purpose of consumption in the society of consumers (even if it is seldom spelled out in so many words and still less frequently publicly debated) is not the satisfaction of needs, desires and wants, but the commoditization or recommoditization of the consumer: raising the status of consumers to that of sellable commodities…. Members of the society of consumers are themselves consumer commodities, and it is the quality of being a consumer commodity that makes them bona fide members of that society. (57)

We have no choice but to self-brand because it is the only way to take the measure of ourselves.

The entrepreneurial risks involved with self-commodification and identity building cannot be defrayed by government — they are beyond the welfare state and can be argued by neoliberalists to obviate it. Social success on the measure of identity invalidates collectivity as a goal — the point is to be recognized as a unique individual who has invested in personal brand wisely, who has consumed well, whose consumption tastes are valuable.

In consumer societies, groups are supplanted by leaderless “swarms” held to together by mediated imitation and tactical conformity. As a result, “Consumption is a supremely solitary activity (perhaps even the archetype of solitude), even when it happens to be conducted in company.” It generates no “lasting bonds,” Bauman avers, in the face of cultural theorists who claim consumption communities around culture-industry products. Bauman is thinking more about things like fast food:

We may suppose that the ‘unintended consequence’ of ‘fast food’, ‘take-aways’ or ‘TV dinners’ (or perhaps rather their ‘latent function’, and the true cause of their unstoppable rise in popularity) is either to make the gatherings around the family table redundant, so putting an end to the shared consumption, or to symbolically endorse the loss, by an act of commensality, consuming in company, of the onerous bondtying and bond-reaffirming characteristics it once had but which have become irrelevant or even undesirable in the liquid modern society of consumers. ‘Fast food’ is there to protect the solitude of lone consumers. 

Lost community is recast as convenience, which is designed to protect the subject’s ability to consume rather than confer and consort with others.

In chapter three Bauman discusses “consumerist culture,” which is distinguished by the inversion of productivist virtues, like procrastination, duration, endurance, etc. “The ‘consumerist syndrome’ is all about speed, excess and waste.” Hence, you can see hoarder shows as ideological training in this perspective. “The nightmares that haunt Homo consumens are things, inanimate or animate, or their shadows – the memories of things, animate or inanimate – that threaten to outstay their welcome and clutter up the stage . . . (99)”

He quotes Bourdieu on how “coercion” has been replaced by “stimulation” — a variant on the Frankfurt School/Foucauldian theme that people are dominated through pleasure and gratification. New desires are aroused and graitfied as a mode of control, as opposed to the inculcation of ascetic etiquette. This is sold as a kind of personal responsibility to please oneself — “you owe it to yourself to consume like you deserve.”

‘Responsibility’ now means, first and last, responsibility to oneself (‘you owe this to yourself’, ‘you deserve it’, as the traders in ‘relief from responsibility’ put it), while ‘responsible choices’ are, first and last, those moves serving the interests and satisfying the desires of the self.

This is the application of “enlightened self-interest” in consumerist terms — playing on the concept of the rational as the self-serving. And it’s our duty to be rational, after all.

Consumerist subjectivity also hinges on making waste rational, on instituting the pleasures of destruction and wasting, the relief of clearing the deck for further consumption, the necessity of being up to date in what you consume. “The ‘presentist culture’ ‘puts a premium on speed and effectiveness, while favouring neither patience nor perseverance.’ We may add that it is this frailty and apparently easy disposability of individual identities and interhuman bonds that are represented in contemporary culture as the substance of individual freedom.” Convenience is freedom from human interaction is freedom in general, an escape into the present away from death, responsibility. Then communications technology develops to accommodate this — allowing for control over disconnection (107). “The safety device that allows instantaneous disconnection on demand perfectly fits the essential precepts of the consumerist culture; but social bonds, and the skills needed to tie them and service them, are its first and principal collateral casualties.”

Identity ceases to be an incremental developmental process, but becomes liquid assembly of static signs, a constant burden requiring service, requiring display for validation, strategic development, etc. (111). “Rather than a gift (let alone a ‘free gift’, to recall the pleonastic phrase coined by marketing advisers), identity is a sentence to lifelong hard labour.”

Here’s a summary paragraph of the book’s ideas — producerism has given way to consumerism; work no longer anchors identity but consumerism and mastering its code and manufacturing identity in media is an effort to restabilize it:

Contemporary society engages its members primarily as consumers; only secondarily, and in part, does it engage them as producers. To meet the standards of normality, to be  acknowledged as a fully fl edged, right and proper member of society, one needs to respond promptly and effi ciently to the temptations of the consumer market; one needs to contribute regularly to the ‘demand that clears supply’, while in times of economic turndown or stagnation
being party to the ‘consumer-led recovery’. All this the poor and indolent, people lacking a decent income, credit cards and the prospect of better days, are not fi t to do. Accordingly, the norm broken by the poor of today, the norm the breaking of which sets them apart and labels them as ‘abnormal’, is the norm of consumer competence or aptitude, not that of employment.

So is the answer a general boycott? a refusal to be effective demand to sustain consumerism? What induces subjects formed by consumerism to surrender the pleasures of it, if they are in a rough equilibrium with its insecurities and depredations?

Bonus notes:
Bauman quotes Alain Ehrenberg on the idea that suffering comes from a surfeit of possibility rather than from prohibitions. Seems a little myopic not to consider material deprivation.

Reputation systems are a mode of social deskilling.

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