Citizens, you are what you buy

December 20, 2002

Cultural studies is fighting for its survival in a harsh research marketplace, says Richard Maxwell, while Mica Nava argues that shopping is all part of politics

Cultural studies is one of the fields most closely associated with the scholarly study of consumerism. This reputation was built over years of research examining how youth, minority cultures and women use the objects and occasions of mass consumption to make sense of their lives in ways not altogether suited to maintaining the status quo. This research offered a riposte to the mandarin prejudice of high cultural journalism and the facile classifications of market researchers, both of which defined consumers as anything but cultural actors. In the best of this writing, class inequality mattered a great deal in determining how consumption contributed to identity narratives of gender, nation and sexual orientation. But as attention to class became secondary to the exploration of identities in consumption, cultural studies became better known for its idea that shopping was active symbol-making work, more effective at stimulating independent minds than at filling empty stomachs. With political economy neatly side-stepped, a growing group of cultural-studies writers began to perceive people shopping in a manner entirely of their own choosing.

This active consumption trend provoked right and left to speak out on the apparent system-serving banality of cultural studies. In an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal in August 1999, Virginia Postrel described cultural studies as "deeply threatening to traditional leftist views of commerce", because its active shopper mirrored the right's beloved sovereign consumer. She welcomed cultural studies' betrayal of "the leftist cause" and its "support to the corporate enemy". In a recent THES review of cultural studies readers, Gary Day noted that despite abundant evidence of the rich getting richer, poverty spreading and civil liberties shrinking, the most that cultural studies could offer was comforting reports about how "shopping was really a subversive activity". Perhaps the harshest appraisal of cultural studies was Robert McChesney's 1996 Monthly Review essay "Is There Any Hope for Cultural Studies?". These commentaries raised a distressing question for those of us working within the field about the changing nature of cultural studies and consumerism's influence on it. Has cultural studies been consumed by consumerism?

From an institutional angle, the answer is clear. When its "pioneers" fought to democratise educational access, they sought to make both the works of culture and the work of thought more relevant to working men and women of all ages and races who had been neglected by educational leaders. The study of young people's socialisation and domestic life led to an interest in the entreaties and opportunities to consume. The initial turn to consumption also coincided with the professionalisation of cultural studies (mostly in media and sociology departments) that accompanied the expansion of the university system in the UK and its transformation into a mass secondary education system in the 1980s (in the larger US system, where cultural studies found a home in literature and communications departments, the consumption trend got a big boost in the wake of Ronald Reagan's economic policies and his attack on organised labour and social programmes). Over the past decade, cultural studies has had to contend with the marketisation of higher education and has performed as defensively as other disciplines, promoting uncontroversial programmes that appeal to students as consumers rather than as citizens-in-training.

The treatment of students as retail customers is part of the routine mission of higher education to link the goals of universities to the needs of business (codified in recent Labour proposals for education reform). In the US, this has been the politics of higher education for decades, becoming more explicit in the post-cold-war period when the corporate university and the audit culture it promotes dropped the pretence of having any serious commitment to liberal arts education. In a recent commencement speech at my college, the acting president assured the audience of mostly working-class parents that their sons and daughters had been well prepared as "human capital". While a few faculty members glanced around in stunned horror, most were un-moved by the president's candour. And a good number of anxious parents nodded their heads, relieved to hear that their children's liberal arts education did not liberate them from a good job in the real world.

Some 35 years ago, a brief interruption in the evolution of this "academic capitalism" allowed cultural studies and other radical educational projects to transgress the boundaries of established disciplines. As cultural studies became a presence in universities, scholarly organisations and the publishing industry, much of its writing became re-departmentalised and depoliticised under the pressures and limits of the political economic realities of higher education (tenure, interdepartmental rivalries, budgets, strategic planning, schooling "to order" and so on). Cultural studies and the humanities were confronted with demands to play a new role in an educational complex, organised and managed as if it were a colossal human resources bureaucracy using market criteria and audits as planning guidelines.

Cultural studies in the UK experienced a harsh reintroduction to this political economy last summer with the closing of the University of Birmingham's department of sociology and cultural studies. The closure was not based on the failure to be popular with student-consumers - as some enterprising Birmingham faculty quickly acknowledged by shamelessly scooping up the orphaned students. Rather, the closure was caused by a changed notion of what counts in a research marketplace that is being reorganised to position universities as global competitors for informational and educational resources. The conditions for doing (and consuming) cultural studies have changed.

Rather than give up cultural studies to the neo-liberal politics of higher education, in terms of how we work and what we write, we can identify ways to link a critique of neo-liberalism and a cultural studies approach to consumption. University of Illinois professor Susan Davis sees opportunities to turn consumerism against itself, not by issuing nostrums against the pleasures of shopping but by paying attention to the politics of resource allocation that brings a consumption infrastructure into the built environment. The conditions of shopping become the key social experience for cultural analysis and activism. In an essay "Shopping" (published in Culture Works ), Davis argues that consumer bashing and the negative association of shopping with pleasure is not a viable basis for politicising consumption. "When one in four American children lives in poverty," she writes, "and hunger is a growing problem for people of all ages, across-the-board tirades about excessive individual spending miss the point." What hits the point is understanding the political economic system of distribution that affects long-term decisions about the character of the "physical landscape of shopping". This renewed emphasis on the material dimensions of shopping confronts the reality of real-estate developers, "redevelopers", local political elites and community development commissions as well as degradations of environment and health that accompany the overbuilt shopping landscape.

Within this approach, which links political economy to cultural studies, the active consumer is an activist consumer. This alternative identity can draw on a number of historical precedents and present-day examples for sustenance. The consumer movement that flourished in early 20th-century America still exists in a number of forms, though not on a mass scale. There are numerous consumer rights and research groups, such as the Consumers Union in the US, which serve as informational outlets and organising consultants.

On a theoretical level, cultural studies has already generated some sharp thinking about ways that appreciation of the consumer-activist-citizen can grow from piecemeal analyses into far-reaching cultural policy. Toby Miller, George Yudice and Justin Lewis, among others, have articulated approaches to the citizen-consumer couplet that urge cultural studies to push the consumption trend toward the politics of democratic renewal, mindful of the specificities of different regions and cultures and taking cues from the direct action of organisations such as Greenpeace or the labour movement in the global entertainment and fashion industries.

Opening the consumption analysis to the critique of political economy and involvement in cultural policy may be a road less travelled, but it has not been abandoned in cultural studies. Recent examples of cultural studies works that speak to and about the consumer-activist-citizen include No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade, and the Rights of Garment Workers edited by Andrew Ross, Janet Wasko's books on Disney and the consumption of Disney around the world, and Miller's research on global Hollywood, sport and popular culture.

Consumption theorists must not settle for merely "making do" in the contemporary political economy. As Davis puts it: "The shopping world cannot imagine anything beyond itself. But we can."

Richard Maxwell is professor of media studies at Queens College-City University of New York and editor of Culture Works: The Political Economy of Culture , University of Minnesota Press, £16.50, and co-author of Global Hollywood , British Film Institute, £15.99.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.