One thing that catches my attention again and again is the sheer exuberance of consumption in the US. The abundance of things that one must have and their overwhelming availability swamps my attention. How can there be so much stuff? Why does everyone think they need so many different things? Why are perfectly adequate items replaced so continuously by “new and improved” versions of the same thing? How do people manage to acquire -- and then toss into the garbage -- these piles of consumables?
A trip to a grocery store dulls the senses: How many kinds of cereals can there possibly be? How can Honey Nut Cheerios be improved? How does one choose among the flood of cereals available? Shopping malls exhaust the eye: Entering a shoe store stops me in my tracks. When I ask for a comfortable walking shoe, the clerk looks at me in wonder --“Doesn’t this guy know that there must be 30 kinds of ‘comfortable walking shoes’?” Then, “Tell me, what kind of shoe should I show you?” the clerk asks with a condescending glance at the shoes I am wearing.
My mind focuses. I come to the humbling realization that I do not have the expertise to consume that everyone in the US takes for granted. So today, I want to write about consumption experts. First, however, I want to take a detour through some sociology to provide the background for my thoughts.
Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist who many see as the founder of sociology, and Sigmund Freud, the Viennese founder of psychoanalysis, agree that humans are creatures of insatiable desire. “Give me and give me now!” they argue is the fundamental human sentence. They agree further that a major purpose of society -- or, in Freud’s terms, “civilization” -- is to attempt to curb our desire and to channel our wanting into socially useful forces. No matter how successful society is at diverting our desire, no matter how successful it is in postponing the satisfaction of our desires through useful activities (work, taking care of children, art, religion), Freud and Durkheim see willful 1-year-olds lurking beneath our adult demeanors. The ever-wanting child may be diverted but is never satisfied and never silenced. “I want” overrides every other thought we may utter.
The fundamental power of human desire
Karl Marx, the German-British social analyst, also notes the fundamental power of human desire. Marx has an ironic take on desire. On the one hand, he sees it as a creative force, especially when expressed through work. When our work is fueled by our own desire, rather than serving the desires of others, Marx finds the worker in its most truly human capacity -- as one who builds a world in which we can live and meet our needs. On the other hand, desire can also be “manufactured.” When desire is manufactured, it becomes “unnatural” or “alien” to the truly human. Manufactured desire makes us want things we really do not need but things that we are urged to purchase. I remember the fad of “pet rocks.” Millions of these rocks were sold to people who just had to have one, or maybe a collection of them.
With manufactured desire, our desire no longer belongs to us -- rather it belongs to, and serves, those who manufacture it. The role of advertisers is to make us want those things we truly do not need. Thus, when I “need” a TL 3,000 LCD television, my desire serves Sony or LG or some other corporation, rather than serving myself. Capitalism, Marx argues, is founded on the creation of “unnatural” desire for the objects pouring out of factories. Capitalism leads us to want things that are produced and sold in the marketplace, while the profit from selling these commodities lines the pockets of capitalists. Our desire thus is perverted and leads not to us becoming more human but rather to becoming toadies who serve those who profit from us.
As I think of this, I think maybe I really do need an iPhone 4. But wait! The iPhone 5 is right around the corner. The iPhone 4, no matter how many bells and whistles it has, will be obsolete in a matter of months! What shall I do? Buy one now and replace it in three months? Or buy one now and know that, in three months, my iPhone will be a has-been? Lucky for Stephen Jobs, I not only want an iPhone, I need one. The loser here is not Stephen Jobs.
Consumption, then, is an integral feature of life under the sway of capitalism. This was something else Marx noticed: The whole world is under capitalism’s sway. Some people try to divide the world’s societies into capitalist and non-capitalist nations. I think that task is largely otiose. Only last week the news noted the anger of Chinese consumers who discovered that four Apple stores in China were fakes. I imagine the counterfeit iPhones and iPads sold work about as well as the authentic ones. But these Chinese socialist consumers were less concerned with whether the fake iPhone worked and more concerned with whether they could display the “real thing” to their envious friends.
Maybe I should be cautious here. Isn’t “The Real Thing” a copyright-protected phrase? After all, only Coca-Cola is the real thing.
Consumption and desire, then, have been a major area of concern for sociologists since the founding of the discipline. However, another dimension should be noted. Not only does consumption relate to our wants, whether those wants are real or artificial, but consumption also carries meaning. To examine the “meaning” of consumption, we need to turn to some other sociologists.
Thorstein Veblen, an early American sociologist who examined the role of consumption in America, noted that consumption serves as a communication system. Consumption is a way of communicating to other people claims one makes about oneself. Consumption signals a person’s estimation of self and value -- that is, consumption is a way of saying “Who am I?” and “How valuable am I?”
Getting the recognition we deserve
These two questions of value are somewhat puzzling. The questions themselves suggest that other people may not know who I am and that my value is not at all obvious. Further, since my identity and my value are not obvious, that uncertainty can easily make me anxious -- what if others fail to recognize and to acknowledge the person I claim to be? How can I be sure that I get the recognition that I want and that I think I deserve? The need for an easy-to-use and widely recognized system to proclaim my value and to prompt recognition from others becomes more and more obvious. Such a system of widely recognized signals of my value would lessen my anxiety and increase the odds that I receive affirmations of my value from others. Consumption, particularly “conspicuous consumption,” Veblen argues, serves as a system of “status symbols.” What I consume can serve as a symbol of my status. When others notice my consumption, it is more likely that they will recognize my status claims and then affirm those claims. Further, Veblen suggests, the anxiety over status and the place of public consumption that he finds throughout modern society is quite different from the status systems of earlier societies.
In earlier societies, such as in the Ottoman or Chinese or Indian empires or in medieval Europe or in the pre-European-contact societies of the Americas, a person’s value was much less problematic than is the case today. A person was born into a system where value was ascertained at birth -- if I were the daughter of a noble person, I would automatically assume noble status and if I were the son of a serf, then a serf was what I was. Societies might also possess various systems that distributed value through widely accepted mechanisms of “merit.” For more than 2,000 years in China, for example, one could establish status through performance on state-administered examinations on the Confucian classics and among the Aztecs one could climb a ladder of merit through ritualized acts of bravery on the battlefield or on ceremonial ball courts. In Islamic societies, only certain people could wear the esteemed costumes that were reserved for the reputed descendents of the Prophet. These systems were long-lasting, stable, widely recognized (a sociologist would call them “legitimate”) and enforced by the elites of various societies.
With the coming of modernization, which began in Europe 300 years or so ago, these stable and widely shared public systems of placing people into different categories of value and the distribution of different rewards to persons in each status began to falter, then to tremble, then to fall apart. In the collapse of these systems of status certainty, consumption took on a new role, one that replaced the older systems. Certainty was undercut by anxiety and consumption replaced “nobility” and “merit.”
Next week I will continue to explore the way consumption expertise serves as a major method to deal with today’s anxiety that “no one knows my name” and “no one acknowledges who I am.”