Consuming distaste

by Yule Heibel on October 27, 2004

If you live in Canada, you can buy a recently published book, The Rebel Sell, by Torontonians Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. In the US, it will be published under a different title: Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture. I like the original title better — it makes me feel cleverer, and that’s what marketing is all about, isn’t it? Me-me-me, the consumer? Seriously, though, this book seems worth a read. Heath and Potter did spill most of the thesis in This Magazine earlier this year. Their guiding question is, How can we all denounce consumerism, and yet still find ourselves living in a consumer society? They suggest that we aren’t critiquing consumerism at all: instead, we are critiquing mass society while telling ourselves that this critique equates somehow with a critique of consumerism. It doesn’t, according to the authors:

In fact, the critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for more than 40 years.

That last sentence is worth reading again. The idea is so foreign, so completely the opposite of what we are used to being told, that many people simply can’t get their head around it. It is a position that Thomas Frank, editor of The Baffler [hint: current issue (nr.16) has an essay by Dubravka Ugresic, yea!], has been trying to communicate for years. Strangely, all the authors of anti-consumerism books have read Frank—most even cite him approvingly—and yet not one of them seems to get the point. So here is Frank’s claim, simply put: books like No Logo, magazines like Adbusters, and movies like American Beauty do not undermine consumerism; they reinforce it.
This theory [of mass society] acquired such a powerful grip on the imagination of the left during the 1960s that many people still have difficulty seeing it for what it is—a theory. Here are a few of its central postulates:

1. Capitalism requires conformity in the workers. Capitalism is one big machine; the workers are just parts. These parts need to be as simple, predictable, and interchangeable as possible. One need only look at an assembly line to see why. Like bees or ants, capitalist workers need to be organized into a limited number of homogeneous castes.

2. Capitalism requires conformity of education. Training these corporate drones begins in the schools, where their independence and creativity is beaten out of them—literally and figuratively. Call this the Pink Floyd theory of education.

3. Capitalism requires sexual repression. In its drive to stamp out individuality, capitalism denies the full range of human expression, which includes sexual freedom. Because sexuality is erratic and unpredictable, it is a threat to the established order. This is why some people thought the sexual revolution would undermine capitalism.

4. Capitalism requires conformity of consumption. The overriding goal of capitalism is to achieve ever-increasing profits through economies of scale. These are best achieved by having everyone consume the same limited range of standardized goods. Enter advertising, which tries to inculcate false or inauthentic desires. Consumerism is what emerges when we are duped into having desires that we would not normally have.>

Heath and Potter continue to dissect the film American Beauty, dismantling its hero’s supposed rebel stance and showing that it is, instead, simply a more competitively savvy stance:

What we need to see is that consumption is not about conformity, it’s about distinction. People consume in order to set themselves apart from others. (…)

They proceed to skewer No Logo‘s Naomi Klein; she had written disparagingly of the condo-fication of her factory-loft neighbourhood, a movement that threatened her directly: “Her complaints about [real estate] commercialization [in downtown Toronto] are nothing but an expression of this loss of distinction.” (Here I was reminded of John Lennon’s murder, which Cathy, one of my really hard political friends dismissed, literally within hours of its occurence, as a media event designed to manipulate the masses emotionally. Ouch, I remember thinking, I liked John Lennon. But I saw Cathy’s point, and Heath and Potter’s point holds just as well.)
Their distinction (ahem) between conformism and distinction is useful, sharp:

Once we acknowledge the role that distinction plays in structuring consumption, it’s easy to see why people care about brands so much. Brands don’t bring us together, they set us apart. Of course, most sophisticated people claim that they don’t care about brands—a transparent falsehood. Most people who consider themselves “anti-consumerist” are extremely brand-conscious. They are able to fool themselves into believing that they don’t care because their preferences are primarily negative. They would never be caught dead driving a Chrysler or listening to Celine Dion. It is precisely by not buying these uncool items that they establish their social superiority. (It is also why, when they do consume “mass society” products, they must do so “ironically”—so as to preserve their distinction.)

And don’t we all know a bunch of people exactly like that: countercultural types, drop-outs, people who sneer at people who shop at big box stores, listen to commercial radio, or feel sad when John Lennon gets murdered. How can anyone, these “aware” people contend, think that mass-produced and mediated products or events can have any authenticity?

As Pierre Bourdieu reminds us, taste is first and foremost distaste—disgust and “visceral intolerance” of the taste of others. This makes it easy to see how the critique of mass society could help drive consumerism.
We find ourselves in an untenable situation. 0n the one hand, we criticize conformity and encourage individuality and rebellion. On the other hand, we lament the fact that our ever-increasing standard of material consumption is failing to generate any lasting increase in happiness. This is because it is rebellion, not conformity, that generates the competitive structure that drives the wedge between consumption and happiness. As long as we continue to prize individuality, and as long as we express that individuality through what we own and where we live, we can expect to live in a consumerist society.

Meanwhile, don’t start thinking that you as an individual can drive lasting or meaningful change all by your lonesome, however. You’re not John Lennon (or Princess Di), after all. Read Heath and Potter’s take on SUVs, for example, and read, especially, this bit:

At this stage of late consumerism, our best bet is legislative action. If we were really worried about advertising, for example, it would be easy to strike a devastating blow against the “brand bullies” with a simple change in the tax code. The government could stop treating advertising expenditures as a fully tax-deductible business expense (much as it did with entertainment expenses several years ago). Advertising is already a separately itemized expense category, so the change wouldn’t even generate any additional paperwork. But this little tweak to the tax code would have a greater impact than all of the culture jamming in the world.

Of course, tweaking the tax code is not quite as exciting as dropping a “meme bomb” into the world of advertising or heading off to the latest riot in all that cool mec gear. It may, however, prove to be a lot more useful. What we need to realize is that consumerism is not an ideology. It is not something that people get tricked into. Consumerism is something that we actively do to one another, and that we will continue to do as long as we have no incentive to stop. Rather than just posturing, we should start thinking a bit more carefully about how we’re going to provide those incentives. [More… ]

Somehow, I think this prescription (and critique) dovetails nicely with George Lakoff‘s analyses of reactionary-conservative agendas to hijack moral issues and policy. On the left, we’re so busy arguing about individual piety (giving up this or that, making our footprint tinier, being [competitively] more radically chic than the next guy, etc.), eschewing consumerism (evil, evil) and mass society (bad, bad) that we’ve left the terrain of political action — legislation, small acts of democratic intervention (when was the last time you called your Member of the Legislative Assembly or your Congressman?), and all sorts of other systems-work to the rightwingers. Yeah, so we’ve got our “meme bombs,” but the problem is that they’ve got the tax code. Time to restrategise. Incidentally, I was sad when John Lennon was shot, and I did resent being told by my Leninist (not Lennonist) girlfriend that my sadness was merely reified bourgeois sentimentalism. That’s the other problem with being cool beyond brands, including drop-out drop-dead politically radically cool: you’re not supposed to allow yourself to feel anything, unless it’s been approved by the party line. In that sense, individuality is a conundrum: maybe you can’t buy it, but don’t try to deny it..


brian moffatt October 30, 2004 at 12:39 am

As usual I have about nine million things to say. What is it about your posts, Yule?

There’s a lovely German word: aufge… something. I once wrote it down in a notebook. Do you know it? There are at least sixteen components in the word. Basically it means having the ability to hold in your mind multiplicitous ‘lines’ or ‘ideas’. Multitasking’s cognitive equivalent.

By the way, where did you get your brain? I want one.

“In fact, the critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for more than 40 years.

That last sentence is worth reading again.”

Well, I’ve now read it fifty times and I still don’t get it. Or, perhaps to a cynic and non shopper like me, it’s real straight forward.

I think their thesis is bang on. Sort of. It’s one of the reasons I can never fully buy into so much trend – left, right whatever. I’m so naive about these things. I once listened to a friend explain why he was getting a Volvo wagon. Apart from the practicalities, he thought it projected the right image. This blew me away. Not the fact that he was ‘transferring’ – the fact that he didn’t realize that nobody really cares. But they do, and then they don’t. People are wound up in this game. Part envy, part signal, part belonging.

A longer post is coming out of this for me. I was thinking about it this evening over a ‘normal’ coffee at Tim Hortons.

Just fitting in. Rebel without a grande latte.

Yule Heibel November 1, 2004 at 2:03 am

I can’t think of the German word you think you’re thinking of, Brian, but I did hear a guy from the Goethe Institut on CBC Radio the other day announce the winner of “the most beautiful German word” contest (I’m not kidding). The word was Habseligkeiten. Haben is a verb, “to have,” and selig — seen Woody Allen’s film? — is “blissful,” bissed-out, one step short of “sainted.” It’s an adjective, but when you add the “…keiten” at the end, you’re making a plural noun. So, Habseligkeiten are the little bits you can carry around with you that represent all you hold dear in this world, that make you feel happy and put you in a zen sort of state of mind. They’re not big bits, otherwise they wouldn’t be “blissfulnesses”; they’re just little bits you could stick in a little backpack, not necessarily entirely intangible, but nearly so.

Anyway, so much for today’s Deutschstunde… 😉

I read your post on this here, glad you found the book’s ideas thought-provoking. Just as an aside, I was at Munro’s bookstore this afternoon and was able to find one single hardcover of Rebel Sell tucked away in a bottom shelf, while dozens of paperback copies of Klein’s books (No Logo and Fences & Neighbours) were in-your-face prominently available on the remainders table.

I haven’t seen the film American Beauty, but I did read Klein’s books and liked them tremendously. I also think that Klein has done a lot of effective actual political work, vs. simply spinning consumerism: she’s in the trenches. I also think that culture jamming has its place, and that it’s important to keep criticising culture industry (here‘s an English page).

Why? Because stupid people who don’t care anyway will continue to co-opt any kind of critique by consuming it as just another product, but there are other people who want and need to hear this critique, who will think about it and perhaps do something with it …like call their MLA with some carefully crafted feedback or demand. Reading around in Heath & Potter, I didn’t see them disagree. I think they take this to the next level by showing how competitiveness takes critique to the next level, namely, makes “cool” into another product that not-so-smart but competitive sheep can consume.

We’ve had this discussion before, I seem to remember, when I blogged something ages ago about something I really liked in Adbuster: you came in like a 16-ton weight, saying that an Adbuster-type crit is pure bs. But I guess I’m just an illiterate peasant who believes in the power of pictures. I really do think that representation is more than just air — it influences people, I do believe that along with all the spinmeisters who are busy churning the stuff out (and making mucho-$$ while they’re at it). Therefore, if I can come up with any perspective that helps a kid to see the choice s/he has in resisting or consuming any kind of propaganda (marketing), then good-ho. I’m not going to tell a kid, who feels peer pressure about wearing the right kind of underwear, for example (did you ever catch the pressure about boys not wearing “tidy-whities,” i.e., regular Hanes white underpants, and feeling obliged to switch to boxers in case the kids saw them wearing the wrong thing in the locker rooms?, yeah, it’s that stupid!), I’m not going to tell that kid, “oh it doesn’t matter what underwear you wear,” because the kid would know that I’m lying to him: I know it matters to the kid who’s being sniggered at in the changing rooms. I’m going to try to help him figure out the economic substructures undergirding the creation of a desire for coloured boxers over “tidy-whiteys” instead. I am definitely NOT going to give him a pep talk on self-esteem because that’s not going to make him smarter. I would help him figure things out from a structural p-o-v because I would want that kid to spend his mental energies on something of consequence, and the colour of your underwear should be of no consequence whatsoever — contrary to what marketers (viral and otherwise) would have you believe. Nor do I particularly think it matters whether or not he feels “good about himself” and can hold his head up. To hell with that, we’ve had way too much emphasis placed on those little chats.

Incidentally, I would also teach my kid(s) to look critically at much-praised “politically correct” products, like the highly dubious (imo) new video by Eminem, Mosh. Again, it’s visual, and we might disagree here, too, since I seem to get more hung up on visual stuff than you do, but that video is full of Nazi imagery, just full of it. It’s the Nuremberg Rallies all over again. I can’t buy into that, even if I think the lyrics aren’t bad. I see a white guy who looks different (distinct!) leading a pack of interchangeable drones, regardless of hue, who make one choice (to vote), while their cities, jobs, ghettos, and apartments continue as before. AS IF that one act would make a difference! But again and again, that’s what co-optation does — within a “radical” paradigm, violence co-opts every movement for change, and “Mosh” is right up there.

Hey, it’s Hallowe’en and I got a bit dizzy from my broomride tonight, so now I’m rambling. But again: what I like about Potter & Heath’s thesis is that they bring critique back to a structural level vs. encouraging this idiotic notion that a heroic (non)consumer nailed to the cross can make a difference. You know, here in Victoria we pump our sewage untreated right into the Juan de Fuca Strait, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a vegetarian when you pooped, or that you used toilet paper made from non-old-growth organic pulp. It’s still the same stuff as everyone else’s when you flush. I would much rather see concerted action to get a sewage treatment plant and, while we’re at it, to get a clean air act that forces car owners to drive cleaner cars (and maybe gives a tax break for doing so). I want changes in industries so that they build better products and I want tax incentives for consumers to buy better products, and I want legislation to force industries to take back their old stuff and recycle it. (I believe that in Germany, for eg., new cars have to be entirely recyclable, by law.) That’s when real changes can happen, when governments and industry stop using the consumer as excuse for every wasteful shoddy piece of crap they put out (and consumers stop playing the blame game, too) and industry stops blocking every effort to make them build better stuff. My choice of broom will hardly make a dent, but if I get a break for buying a better fridge or heating system or storm windows to conserve energy or whatever, that’s when things might change. So far, there is no incentive to buy better (unless we mean the “incentive” to improve our “distinction”), and at best there’s just an incentive to buy more (“Sale!”).

Of course it’s impossible to legislate underwear styles, which is why I will continue to consider those matters worthy of culture criticism.

Betsy Burke November 2, 2004 at 5:40 pm

kool yule, as always- your take on how to talk to your kid about Hanes etc is the most revolutionary and most difficult- as for sewage treatment plants- you can’t say enough- and they still aren’t listening, the hypocrites-

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