One of the most perspicacious social theorists of our time, Zygmunt Bauman, has given us a compelling, if not wholly original sketch of the contemporary consumer, or what he calls “Homo consumens”. I prefer to add “Gyna” (woman) to “Homo” (man), not only for feminist reasons of representing all the members of the human race, but also because women are just as enthusiastic as men, if not more so, when it comes to consuming.
And it suits corporations and manufacturing companies down to the ground if women pursue consumption, in the form of “shopping till dropping”, as a supposed expression of their freedom. Some freedom – what has happened to all those lofty social and political ideals of emancipation and equality that the women’s movement has fought so hard for? Judging by the way that the television series, “Sex and the City”, valorized the “freedom to shop”, that is all that is left of freedom for women in consumer society.
In his book, Does Ethics have a Chance in a World of Consumers? (Harvard University Press, 2008 : Chapter 4) Bauman muses on that inimitable Czech writer, Milan Kundera’s novel, Slowness, where Kundera elaborates on the link between forgetting and speed: “The degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting”. Bauman focuses on the economic relevance of this remark, specifically as far as the economic activities of buying, using and replacing commodities are concerned. What is at stake is the precise character of consumer society, which – Bauman points out – marks a later, different stage of capitalism’s development, succeeding what used to be the phase of “the society of producers”.
While the latter kind of society was still tied to politics that related to the collective interests of the “body politic”, today’s consumer society is preoccupied with “life politics”, or the life-style interests of the individual – a shift that reflects another, perhaps more profound one at a temporal level, but that is manifested in economic terms. Bauman summarises the link between present consumption practices and time succinctly: “The consuming life is a life of rapid learning – and swift forgetting”.
This stands in stark contrast with what informed the economic activities of buying products in the producer-world of yesteryear, when immediate gratification of the individual was less important than what was perceived as long-term economic benefits of society as a whole. To those familiar with Max Weber and Freud, it will be apparent that such economic behaviour was correlative to what these thinkers saw as the “delay of gratification” or the postponement of pleasure. More philosophically speaking, it manifested a different social relation to time, which was predicated on an interconnectedness of past, present and future, compared to consumer society’s almost pathological commitment to the present – a commitment that prompted Fredric Jameson to describe this temporal habitus metaphorically as “schizophrenic”, or being so taken up by the fleeting moment of the present that it is all that remains, with no connections to past or future.
Any keen observer of present-day consumer society will know that there is scant evidence, today, of delaying pleasure; on the contrary, immediate gratification is the overriding impulse, and is encouraged by all the agencies intent on keeping the economic wheels turning…fast. While the society of producers was committed to the belief in “acquiring and possessing” products that were durable and intended by their manufacturers to last, this has made way for the obligatory rapid replacement of products. Bauman comments as follows on this phenomenon, elaborating on an advertisement that urges consumers to get rid of supposedly passé beige facial cosmetics and purchase “deep rich colours” instead, lest they fall behind the “style pack”:
“The millions chucking the beige out and refilling their bag with deep rich colors would most probably say that the beige consigned to the rubbish heap is a sad side-effect…of make-up progress. Yet some of the thousands who restock the supermarket shelves might possibly admit in a moment of truth that overflowing the shelves with rich deep colors was prompted by the need to shorten the beige’s useful life and so to keep the economy going. Both explanations will be right. Is not GNP, the official index of the nation’s well-being, measured by the amount of money changing hands? [One can hardly fail to notice Bauman’s irony here; B.O.] Is not economic growth propelled by the energy and activity of consumers? Is not a ‘traditional consumer,’ a shopper who shops only to meet his or her ‘needs’ and stops once those needs have been met, the greatest danger to the consumer markets? Is not the bolstering of demand, rather than the satisfying of needs, the prime purpose and the flywheel of consumerist prosperity?…the ethical principle of the consuming life (if its ethics could be at all frankly articulated) would be about the fallaciousness of resting satisfied. The major threat to a society that announces ‘customer satisfaction’ to be its motive and purpose is a satisfied consumer.”
Later in this chapter (4) of “Does Ethics have a Chance in a World of Consumers?” Bauman raises the difficulty of determining whether people have become “happier” in the course of growing consumption – quite apart from the fact that it is virtually impossible to gauge such putative “social happiness” in a past era in comparison with the present one (for a variety of reasons discussed by him). Citing Andrew Oswald of the Financial Times, Bauman states that there is no evidence that the number of people reporting their “happiness” have increased. Oswald actually suggests that the reverse is more likely to be the case:
“His conclusion is that the highly developed, well-off countries with consumption-driven economies have not become happier as they’ve grown richer and as consumerist preoccupations and activities have become more voluminous…a consumption-oriented economy actively promotes disaffection, saps confidence, and deepens the sentiment of insecurity…[think of the EU today! B.O.] While consumer society rests its case on the promise to gratify human desires like no other society in the past could do or dream of doing, the promise of satisfaction remains seductive only so long as the desire stays ungratified. More important, it tempts only so long as the client is not ‘completely satisfied’ – so long as the desires that motivate the consumers to further consumerist experiments are not believed to have been truly and fully gratified.”
Reformulating Bauman’s conclusion concerning Homo and Gyna consumens in the language of Lacanian psychoanalysis, this means that consumer capitalism cannot deliver on its promise of jouissance, or ultimate pleasure. On the contrary – the essential consumer is chronically un-satisfied. Of necessity, the promise of gratification has to be spurious, as Bauman argues regarding the ever self-renewing imperative to consume new, “better”, more “with it”, in the place of “so last year” products with the promise of rich, if ephemeral rewards, like staying “ahead of the style-pack”.
Even more importantly – and I can say this in light of what I have called, following Deleuze, the “crystal of memory”, which not even the amnesia induced by consumerism can erase – as Freud, Lacan, and especially Julia Kristeva have pointed out, jouissance, although elusive, can only be approximated at the cost of confronting some prohibition, some authority that needs to be questioned in light of unjustified expectations or actions. And consumerism is not the kind of authority that issues prohibitions; on the contrary, its imperative – so clearly analysed by Slavoj Žižek in “The deadlock of repressive desublimation” – is to “Enjoy!” And at the same time, it shifts the goal-posts of enjoyment to a new point of conditionality.
Hence, the way to overcome consumer capitalism today, is for this penny to drop: anyone who realises, in a moment of “enlightenment”, that because it exhorts consumers to more and more enjoyment, which nevertheless remains elusive, the jouissance that every person subliminally seeks, is nowhere to be had under capitalism.