That shirt is so 'you'

Journal of Consumer Culture
April 25, 2003

Should combat clothing be worn as a fashion? A recent discussion on Woman's Hour considered the ethics of wearing battle-dress on the high street when Britain was dropping cluster bombs on Iraq. One participant said that it was ironic, another that it was immoral. One shopper said that she had not given the matter any thought. Here, in miniature, is the whole debate surrounding consumption. Is it a playful, self-reflexive activity or a serious form of protest? And do those who go shopping rather than study it care about a free sachet of shampoo? Whatever the answer, consumerism has become central to our understanding of modernity and postmodernity, and that is why we need this journal.

The editors eschew the moral perspective that sees consumption as a "debasement of human activity" (probably because they have never been to Argos), and instead seek to elaborate the different meanings of the term and its function in contemporary culture. Despite the diversity of topics covered in the first three volumes, the analysis is surprisingly uniform, with most authors broadly agreeing that consumption transforms collective rebellion into individual self-realisation, a point nicely made in Adam Avidsson's article, "Vespa and the Italian youth market". This represents a significant point of departure from earlier studies, whose rhetoric of resistance made customising a pair of jeans an attack on capitalism.

Nevertheless, this journal is recognisably part of the tradition of cultural studies, one of whose founding works was Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy (1957). Hoggart's idea that the working class made use of, but was also undermined by, the new mass culture of the 1950s was the inspiration for the now sadly deceased Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham. There, Stuart Hall led the way in showing how consumers interpreted commodities in terms of their own codes of meaning rather than those of producers or advertisers. What was missing from the Birmingham School was an account of the wider history of consumption, and one of the many strengths of this journal is a determination to situate it in relation to broader developments. In a splendid opening essay, Zygmunt Bauman argues that consumption is just the latest in a long line of activities that divert us from the harsh truth that life is nasty, brutish and short. The substance of his piece is that shopping gives us a sense of self that was once provided by cultural traditions and public institutions, both of which are in decline. Is man no more than this? A collage of household goods, fashion accessories and holiday destinations? Apparently not. Our primary relationship is to things not people, and it does not take a genius to imagine what that eventually will do to the idea of society.

The key difference between new and old generations of cultural theorists lies in the use of empirical data. By and large, the response of theorists from the 1970s to the 1990s to facts was like that of a gourmet to baked beans on toast. Not so here, where hard evidence is provided for the view that consumerism is often a conservative affair. Michèle Lamont and Virag Molnar argue that middle-class black identity in the US is largely the creation of marketing professionals, while Dale Southerton's article on kitchen design shows that consumer choice is constrained by class and status. Adam Burgess goes further, claiming that the consumer is a creation of the authoritarian state and is shaped in its image. Of course there are dissenters from this view. The article on the Walkman, for example, states that the wearer is empowered because he or she aestheticises social space by viewing it to music. But it could equally be argued that the personal stereo is the perfect symbol of the solipsism of consumer society, where the public arena is transformed into a theatre of private pleasures. Enjoyment does not necessarily preclude alienation.

With its global sweep and international contributors, this journal is a valuable addition to any library, even if it fails to tell us why we should take shopping and not work as the central experience of contemporary culture. We consume where once we used to "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest". That's progress for you.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

Journal of Consumer Culture

Editor - George Ritzer and Don Slater
ISBN - ISSN 1469 5405
Publisher - Sage, three times a year
Price - Institutions £190.00 Individuals £36.00

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