On and off their trollies

A Theory of Shopping - The Consumer Society
March 26, 1999

At the end of the 20th century, academics show the same relentless concern with sex and shopping as does contemporary pulp literature and they tend to write with the desperate hipness of flared jeans. These consuming passions are part of the Zeitgeist of our age and any work that can bring them together scores a double whammy. Production, like God and Marx, is dead and consumption has ceased to be the mere prerogative of Victorian poets. Nowadays it is a dominant habitus , or a discourse or, we are told, a mode of sacrifice that deserves its own study. We are no longer permitted to smile at the pretentiousness of the very idea of a theory of shopping.

Both these books have shopping trollies on the cover. But while Daniel Miller's has a baby happily dumped amid a pile of mixed consumer goodies, Jean Baudrillard has empty trollies stacked in sere, aseptic order. The difference is significant.

Miller begins with an excellent and sensitive ethnography of shopping firmly rooted among his own native north Londoners. It is a fine example of what an anthropologist can achieve at home. The characters include an immediately recognisable cast of what in native parlance would be sluts, media harridans, dotty old ladies and doting mums. For shopping is a thing of women, men having their own way of holding it at a distance, and it is all about love. These conclusions are not particularly controversial but Miller twists and turns on the prongs of his own political correctness. His particular nightmare is the ladies of the National Childbirth Trust with their tendency to move from careerist feminism to born-again motherhood, obsessively devoted to the whims of "natural" babies as sticky objects of devotion in replacement of patriarchy. And his ethnography is aimed directly at "more abstract writers, perhaps in sociology and cultural studies, who have written on shopping without having engaged in long-term observation of shopping" - ie Baudrillard.

Miller argues convincingly that choice in shopping is not just about ego-focused claims to status and identity, but central to the constitution and maintenance of loving relationships within the family under the banner of thrift. He shows how the most diverse shopping strategies, bulk-buying, own-brand, special offers, can all be reduced to "saving" beneath a contrary media discourse of shopaholicism and self-indulgence. Central to his argument is the notion of the treat, the point at which self-effacing, self-sacrificing, everyday shopping becomes something more - an indulgence or an act of special reward aimed at oneself or another person - and a neat counterpoint to the dull, undramatic repetitiveness of our domestic lovemaking in the supermarket. There is no shortage of rich generalisations that broaden the significance of his researches. The same consumer thrift is shown to be the basis of a general ideology of globalisation, whose deleterious effect on producers is justified in its name. Contemporary "love" is analysed and shown to be seeded with elements of coerciveness and power.

But all this is somehow not enough and we are taken off on a lengthy and wide-ranging attempt to incorporate north London shopping into general theories of sacrifice. At the end of a long odyssey that reveals a thoroughly admirable command of the sacrificial reading list it all boils down to an attempt, common to acts of sacrifice and shopping, to construct a desiring subject. Miller himself shifts a little uncomfortably in contemplation of the mouse to which he has finally given birth. "Is this a mere souffle made largely of hot air, hopefully enjoyable but of little substance..?" Er...well... frankly yes.

Baudrillard's The Consumer Society was first published nearly 30 years ago, so the principal pleasure to be derived from it might be expected to be that of smug hindsight. Topical allusions have all the distancing effect of jokes about the Boer war. It comes with an excellent preface by George Ritzer, who ably assists us to our conclusions. Given the studied numinosity of Baudrillard's later work, the initial impact is rather like one of those early Picasso's that, contrary to all expectation, deliberately tries to look like something. It is eminently clear, largely free of cancerous metaphor and shows every sign of having been written in an existing version of French rather than creating its own. Ritzer finds it a flawed and inconsistent work, mixing Freud, Marx, Veblen, Talcott Parsons and a simultaneously modernist and postmodernist perspective. But this is hardly unusual for Baudrillard and what we have here is much the standard blend of brilliant insight and arrant nonsense that we know from later works.

Ritzer is anxious to discern the first sprouting of those seeds that would grow into mature "difference", "simulation", "symbolic exchange", "the ludic", "fatality", etc. And indeed, they do have a certain freshness here. We romp through many of the topics that have now become standard elements of consumer studies - packaging, obsolescence and endless analyses of advertising. It is immediately clear how very little anthropology Baudrillard had read at this stage of his life - a little Mauss, some Sahlins, Durkheim, Levi-Strauss - and it is this that enables him to invent a version of primitive society that is a neat counterpart to his dramatic construction of occidentalism. Miller-type fieldwork would have proved fatal to such thought. Here too are the first signs of that preoccupation with inauthenticity that comes to dominate subsequent writings. Despite specific avowals to the contrary, it is eminently clear from this work that Baudrillard's later ideas still presuppose some naive and unclarified notion of the authentic and the real against which simulations and consumerism transgress.

Particularly eloquent is his formulation of the "growth society" that subordinates everything to the registration of growth. The inherent contradictions and adventitious side-effects of growth are such that much of the system has to be devoted to mere self-maintenance. But all these dead ends will be registered as simply expansion of GNP. Such societies do not generate wealth. On the contrary, they create the awareness of new forms of poverty as wants become needs. Actual happiness recedes. Objects become mere gadgets divorced from use-value, serving merely the infinite display of difference. There is no room here for Miller's little people, the canny consumers transforming a dripping ice-cream into thrift, duty or treat. Individuals are entirely subordinated to the system - not of production - but of consumption. And as for love? Forget it. There is only eroticism and consumption of the body in the realm of signs.

If Miller worries about his apparent approval of the status quo, Baudrillard takes it as axiomatic that he is on the side of the angels of destruction even if powerless to mobilise them. "We shall await the violent irruptions and sudden disintegrations which will come, just as unforseeably and as certainly as May 1968, to wreck this white Mass." The translation was made possible by a grant from the French ministry of culture.

Nigel Barley is assistant keeper in the department of ethnography, British Museum.

A Theory of Shopping

Author - Daniel Miller
ISBN - 0 7456 1945 2 and 1946 0
Publisher - Polity
Price - £45.00 and £12.99
Pages - 180

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