Anthropology of consumption


Anthropology of consumption

The aim of this group is to discuss issues of consumption through multiple perspectives, by investigating consumption as praxis, its relations to capitalism, historical developments and everydayness, ethnographic aspects...and more!

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Comment by John McCreery on August 27, 2009 at 6:16pm
The following is from Chapter 1 "Baudrillard: history, hysteria and consumption" by Roy Porter in Forget Baudrillard?

‘Signs, signs? Is that all you have to say?’ In a powerful maturation of thought, first discernible in works such as Le Système des objets (1968) and La Société de consommation (1970) and culminating in L’Echange symbolique et la mort (1976) and Simulations (1981), Jean Baudrillard came to argue that a key characteristic of the contemporary world is that previously stable socioeconomic categories, notions like value and need, have lost their inherent meaning and objective anchorage. 1 Classical political economy posited such elements as independently determined; market forces might change their balance, but the pitch was clearly chalked out and the goalposts fixed. Capitalism, according to standard treatises, was a system of commodity production; value was produced by the labour (power) essential to manufacture; through the play of market forces, output responded to consumer demand, and demand was a function of need. There were iron laws of political economy, grounded in nature (the material world, natural need, the laws of utility), and known by science. Free-marketeers and Marxists might argue over the details, but the rules of the game—secular fluctuations of rate of profit, and so forth—were agreed touchstones. 2 The modern consumer society is another beast. It is, Baudrillard claimed, a system in which analysis of the laws of production has become obsolete. Consumption is all-important, and consumption has to be understood in a novel manner. Thanks to the twentieth-century revolutionization of consciousness—through mass communications, hi-tech media, the advertising and publicity industries, the empire of images throughout the global village—modern human beings now inhabit an artificial, hermetically sealed pleasuredome. Nothing is constant, everything reflects everything else in a theatre of dazzling simulations dominated by the proliferation of the sign and manipulated by ever-hidden persuaders. Desire itself is manufactured, and nothing any longer possesses intrinsic value, in and for itself. Meaning is produced by endless, symbolic exchanges within a dominant code, whose rhetoric is entirely self-referential; a sexy woman is used to sell a car; a car sells cigarettes; cigarettes sell machismo; machismo is used to sell jeans; and so the symbolic magic circle is sealed. Sex, youth, health, speed, style, power, money, mobility—all transvalue and interpenetrate in the mesmerizing dreamworld of ‘floating signifiers’ that typifies the ephemeral, destabilized vortex of late capitalism. Baudrillard likens such dizzying, ever-repeated, and omni-purpose emblems to the symptoms of hysteria:
The world of objects and of needs would thus be a world of general hysteria. Just as the organs and the functions of the body in hysterical conversion become a gigantic paradigm which the symptom replaces and refers to, in consumption objects become a vast paradigm designating another language through which something else speaks. 3
I find this allusion to ‘hysteria’ a singularly apt figure of speech, for a variety of reasons that I shall explore below. For one thing, semiologically speaking, both classical hysteria and modern capitalism evoke an intense, slippery, baffling network of fleeting, volatile manifestations (erratic pains, seizures, highs and depression in the individual; or crazes, fashions, publicity hypes, crises and crashes in the body politico-economic) which possibly serve as teasing surrogates for the underlying reality, or more likely mask an absence, a void, beneath and within. 4 As hysteria (or, as was sometimes said, ‘mysteria’) was often regarded as artifice, mimicry or malingering, or at best a trick of the psyche, so in contemporary capitalism, the measure of ‘health’, as recorded, say, by the Dow-Jones or FT index, is essentially nominal or ‘paper’, a token of self-induced confidence or panic. Hysteria in fin de siècle Vienna or Paris was not, in truth, an underlying disease but a script, a theatre of display, focused upon conversion; so, in a similar manner, modern capitalism deploys its own alchemy, depending on the blinding spectacle of high-speed circulation. The grand economic conjuring trick requires that all balls be kept moving, at high velocity, through the air at once; once one crashes to the ground, lo spettacolo è finito.

When I first read this passage, I had just finished reading Frederic Jameson's Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism, of which the first two chapters can be found here. Where Baudrillard likens late capitalism to hysteria, Jameson describes it as schizophrenic, arguing that hysteria is a typically modern phenomenon, associated with repression, powerful feelings, and obsession with time and history. The schizophrenic postmodern is, instead, liberated to the point of boredom, characterized by lack of affect, constantly in the moment with no sense of history to speak of. The historical is all just past, available but safely neutralized on the other other side of the TV (or now computer) screen.

So, I ask those better informed than myself. Is Porter's description of Baudrillard accurate? If so, is hysteria or schizophrenia the better description of contemporary consumerism?

Looking forward to hearing from you.
Comment by John McCreery on August 27, 2009 at 1:28am
See second line of previous message.
Comment by John McCreery on August 27, 2009 at 1:04am
Is anyone else here aware of Forget Baudrillard?
Book by Chris Rojek, Bryan S. Turner; Routledge, 1993?
Comment by Sabina Rossignoli on August 26, 2009 at 12:51pm
With regard to aestheticization, this article can maybe constitute an extension of the book you suggest (although I haven't got a hold of it yet):

Alladi Venkatesh a; Laurie A. Meamber, "The aesthetics of consumption and the consumer as an aesthetic subject", in Consumption Markets & Culture, Volume 11, Issue 1 March 2008 , pages 45 - 70.

This paper examines aesthetics in everyday consumption practices and patterns. Combining aesthetic theory with prior work of consumer scholars to support our theoretical framework, we investigate empirically the following issues: the integration of aesthetics into everyday consumption, the distinction between everyday aesthetics and of the arts, and the relationship between aestheti cs and the construction of meaning and identity. In addition, we introduce the idea of the consumer as an aesthetic subject. The data also shed light on the following aspects of aesthetic consumption: intrinsic value versus instrumental value, emotions, sensory pleasure, beauty, context, and taste formation.
Keywords: consumption; aesthetics; art; identity; aesthetic subject

It would be interesting to discuss further the contribution of Baudrillard to the study of consumption...

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