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Homo and Gyna Consumens

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.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Maria Maria 20 October 2012

    Wow, Bert, this analysis supplements Ian Parker’s (in Revolutions in Subjectivity) very well. The compatibility between Bauman and Parker on consumer capitalism is astonishing, the more so because of their different registers.

  2. Luzita Luzita 20 October 2012

    Dear Bert

    I really enjoyed this article, thank you. It reminds me of Harry Truman’s inauguration speech where in the context of developing the Third World, he suggests “greater production is the key to prosperity and peace” but instead of this prosperity (or the gratification that you speak of) it arguably creates a supply and demand consumer orientated culture that leads to competition and self interst therefore endorses a class based society.

  3. Rene Rene 20 October 2012

    The problem is – what will make the penny drop? People are completely sucked into this consumerist treadmill, believing that it is the greatest thing on earth, because they don’t know anything else. The tyranny of the status quo, in marxian terms. What will probably get people out of this cycle of consumption, is an environmental meltdown…but that may be too late.

  4. Bernpm Bernpm 20 October 2012

    “Homo and Gyna Consumens”……My classic background feels a little unease with you introducing the Gyna. Have we not -for a long time- been happy and considered inclusive of the female species when referring to “homo sapiens”??

    Consumerism has been introduced at a large scale after WW2 when the US started to pump mass produced inferior (=not lasting) goods into the consumer world, followed by the creation of a “fashion” awareness. The “keeping up with the Jones” attitude.
    Today, we have the Asian countries, headed by the Chinese, pumping inferior (=not lasting) goods into global circulation. All in support of “job creation”.

    Luckily, there are movements to reverse these trends but -as you say- they might reach impact a little too late.

  5. Richard Richard 21 October 2012

    The plot becomes less important once the story is clear. Humans are intensely competitive when it comes to reproductive opportunities, taking almost every activity or product as the chance to compete with one another. Fashion, food, motor-cars, houses, adherence to ideas/political views, hair-cuts, ad infinitum, all become the battleground on which this takes place. But this process is not a once-and-for-all scenario, it changes constantly, causing the competitors to have to keep up to prove that their fingers are on the pulse, that they are still players in the game. Why does dressing up in once-trendy clothing, say from the 1970s, not produce the same attraction as clothes a la mode? Because they refer to a past battle, one no longer current. Serving prawn cocktail, or listening to Bill Haley’s “The Comets” will not get me a mate. But even if I am of more mature years, knowledge of the current cultural state of affairs will give me a better chance of finding somebody. The ultimate goal for this display is, of course, procreation. If the link between procurement and playing this game is clear, it will result in the feeling of a game well-played (or happiness). If that link is more tenuous, the effort becomes a closed and rather meaningless form of shadow-boxing. In the Western World of today, birthrates have fallen markedly; despite all the financial means to compete, that link is broken. The whole edifice of capitalism is thereby rendered futile and meaningless.

  6. Walt Walt 21 October 2012

    @bernpm – homo (lat.) means human – to add the Greek gynae does look a bit odd.

  7. Maria Maria 21 October 2012

    Bernpm and Walt – you obviously don’t know either discourse theory or the history of feminist theory. By using words in an exclusive masculinist manner – mankind instead of humankind, he instead of he and she, homo (which, strictly speaking means man), and so forth, at a subliminal level the impression is fostered that men are somehow prioritized above women, even when one claims that “man” includes both. This is the way that language works; you may intend one thing, but at the niveau of signification, it inculcates another altogether. Bert is quite right to add “Gyna”. Have you read Leonard Shlain on evolutionary theory? He insists on doing the same thing – in fact, he goes as far as claiming that we should rename Homo sapiens Gyna sapiens, because the female sex made an evolutionary breakthrough as far as our time-awareness is concerned that made the species what it is today.

  8. Walt Walt 21 October 2012

    “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.” This appears to be the crux of the matter – wherever prohibitions and authorities are introduced – austerity measures, secrecy bills, sanctions, sharia law, credit ratings, colonization of resources – there is a wall of protest against strictures. After having stormed the barricades of feudal reservations some two hundred years ago, we have entered the global race for a new kind of supremacy that invites the individual to compete in the guise of consumerism. Underlying though we as consumers are stirring a fire that will in time consume those who stirred it. The call for a new ethics is loudly heard, but from where would it come? Islam has a powerful voice in this regard. Zero tolerance environmentalists of Paul Watson’s Sea Shepherd movement have a following – but where is the voice resonating globally? There is a lot of reflection but a unified peaceful solution seems nowhere in sight. But then, we might have left the realm of peace long ago.

  9. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 21 October 2012

    Homo is a genus of great ape. It’s gender neutral already.

    Sex and the City features women who are columnists, art dealers, business owners and lawyers. Seems like they’re enjoying slightly more freedin than merely being free to shop until they drop in our society.

    The delay of gratification was a result of an uncertain future. The consumerist culture dominated after the World Wars, partially due to the necessity to rebuild cities and partially due to a more steady, certain economic prospect for individuals.

    The fact that the number of people who report being happy has not increased, is not indicative that consumerist societies did not make people happy. It simply does not follow, particularly in the very stable advanced countries where most people still report being happy, although the number of happiness reporters has remained more or less constant.

    There is a very simple solution to overcoming conspicuous consumption: Don’t allow subprime lending.

  10. Walt Walt 21 October 2012

    Maria – thanks for the enlightening comment. The matriarchal line in all of evolution remains uncontested without the need to go back ad ovum time and time again. The feminist discourse, while having successfully out-run its own cause in the West, admittedly still needs reinforcing in Africa, the Arab and other parts of the world.

  11. Juju Esq. Juju Esq. 21 October 2012

    Consuming goods can never provide lasting fulfillment. Consumption of goods creates temporary elation for shallow minded materialistic souls, and eventually more dissatisfaction than lasting happiness. Fulfillment is when enlightened individuals need no consumer goods, she/he is self-sufficient physically while experiencing the unseen un-manifest totality of bliss-consciousness that underlies all of creation.

  12. Joe Soap Joe Soap 21 October 2012

    “History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy.”

    Karl Marx, Letter to His Father (1837)

  13. Bernpm Bernpm 21 October 2012

    @Maria: “Bernpm and Walt – you obviously don’t know either discourse theory or the history of feminist theory.”

    I like your assertive “obviously don’t know….”. ..the hardcore feminist stepped on the heart….sorry, my dear, my sincere apologies.

    “By using words in an exclusive masculinist manner – mankind instead of humankind, he instead of he and she, homo (which, strictly speaking means man),” …in my home language we have a neutral translation of the word “homo” which is “mens”.

    I cannot help that (to my knowledge) the English language does not have this facility. When I googled “Gyna” I found gyna in combination with “cologist” etc. Over and above that, I found some just “Gyna” sites with a variety of juicy content.

    I must admit that -in editing some masters and doctoral scripts- I have noticed that scientists -specifically in the soft sciences- have a tendency to invent words to express themselves. Mixing Latin and Greek is new to me. But…who am I to complain?

  14. Bert Bert 22 October 2012

    For those who are ‘obviously ignorant’ of the way that words like ‘mankind’ operate discursively to entrench patriarchy, read Maria’s comment, and further to that, the work of Luce Irigaray. Helene Cixous, Lacan, and other discourse theorists; not just internet sources which often do not factor in an understanding of how language works as discourse.
    Walt – it is only ignorance that stands in the way of recognizing the ‘matriarchal line of all evolution’ – but thanks for that observation; it should trouble some patriarchs among the many who are still around.

  15. Bert Bert 22 October 2012

    Bernpm – what you call the ‘soft sciences’ are actually the hardest, because of the acknowledged complexity of their material. But more to the point – I used ‘Gyna sapiens’, following that inimitable scientist (medical doctor, neurologist, evolutionary theorist, AND philosopher, etc.), Leonard Shlain (also, evidently, read by Maria), who uses this term to indicate the patriarchal bias of the term ‘Homo sapiens’, and to stress the point that all human beings today can attribute their origin as a distinct species of ‘Homo’ to a woman, referred to as ‘African Eve’, who, according to molecular biologists, made the first mutation away from our immediate forebears, Homo (and Gyna) Erectus, because of the astonishing genetic similarity among all humans on the planet today. There is more genetic difference, Shlain points out, between two troops of chimpanzees living in a gorge ten miles apart, than among all human races and cultures on earth. Hence he proposes that the species should, strictly speaking, be called ‘Gyna sapiens sapiens’ (the doubly wise human), because it descended from a woman, and not, as patriarchal religious myths would have it, from a man. There are other reasons too, referred to by Maria, concerning our sense of time, which came from women. Read Shlain’s ‘Sex, Time and Power’.

  16. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 22 October 2012

    That’s wonderful! It means we can leave the people living in poverty well where they are, since they’re without the means to consume, but enabling them to consume will not really give them lasting fulfilment. We should rather enlighten them than enlighten their burden.

    @Joe Soap:
    Yes, but when women make a great deal of people happy, society has less kind terms for them.

    As an aside, there is a light bulb burning from 1909. Frequently quoted as evidence of planned obsolescence in our brighter more recent bulbs, what is not always noted is that it is far less efficient than our current bulbs.

    Consumerism in the affluenza sense relies heavily on wealth that is not related to production, or to scarcity, or to efficiency, or to abundance. This phenomenon (amongst many others) also casts doubt on Marx’s notions of value, in addition to calling his commodity fetishism into question. Why keep up with the Jones’s if we’re not going to trade with them? Our relationship is not defined by trade, or by perceived objective value of commodities, but by social status (more fetish than commodity).

  17. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 22 October 2012

    How language works as a discourse. Interesting, this implies a certain desired or expected result from the context of the language use. Somewhat empirical, so if we don’t get the expected result, it means that language does not work as we expected.

    Slightly sloppy for the pomos, as you’re not meant to make claims that can be proved wrong.

  18. Juju Esq. Juju Esq. 22 October 2012


    If I look at the wild cat strikes and service delivery protests in South Africa right now, the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall St movement, the anti-austerity protests in Europe, I think there is quite a good deal of enlightenment awakening in the world underclasses (non people) right now. Watch this space.

  19. Brent Brent 22 October 2012

    The enlightened intellectual elite flowing full force dicing ‘capitalism’ (whatever that is, except a word coined by Marx over a 100 years ago, guys you all need updating to the 21st centuary!!!!) up to it’s tiniest bits and then patting each other backs like your side just scored a goal. How many people in evil ‘capitalist’ societies are forced at gun point to shop shop shop? At least there is choice to shop or not or where to shop as opposed to having to shop at the local GUM store or whatever the state store is called in Cuba nowdays.
    To make you grit your teeth even more it has been proved by neuromarketing studies (how capitalist can one get) that the cancer warning signs (prominent by the law by order of the chattering elite classes) actually enhanced smoking: “overt, direct, visually explicit antismoking messages did more to encourage smoking than any deliberate campaign Marlboro or Camel could have come up with”, page 82 of buy-ology by martin Lindstrom. That is what happens when market idiots dictate what the market/producer can or cannot do, more evil than before.


  20. Brent Brent 22 October 2012

    PS – approve 110% of Maria’s blog and your reply affirming her point. But is it not like arguing which is the most important wheel of a two wheeled bike, pointless without either the bike is useless. Lets just do away with he, her, homo, man, woman etc etc and just use people kind and us, them, we etc etc. Problem solved now lets get on and solve the other important problems like: violence on females (sorry for the male side of that) and children, poverty………… such a long long list makes me tired and frustrated about the endless, pointless discussions/arguements on thoughtleader, chattering classes showing off to each other.


  21. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 22 October 2012

    But the peasants have always been revolting. Why are they revolting? Are they revolting because they demand instant enlightenment or because they want to use more than 10% of their brains?

    Our own wild cat mining strikes are also not because of people being excluded from the conspicuous consumption playground. Many of those miners have debt with loan sharks – an insane amount of debt, even at their fairly high levels of compensation. This means they have not been excluded, but they were enabled to participate, for better or worse, on terms they accepted voluntarily.

    Why would there be anti-austerity protests when it’s abundantly clear that consumption just destroys our environment and forces us to deal with each other in the terms of commodity fetishism? Surely, if this was the root cause, then more people should support ‘austerity measures’, as they ensure less production, less consumption and by extension, less destruction of our environment and less human relationships expressed as trades. Unless of course this analysis is not in tune with observation and people are just protesting because they don’t want to change their consumption patterns.

  22. Bernpm Bernpm 22 October 2012
  23. Chris2 Chris2 23 October 2012

    The genus homo has probably evolved as an un-satisfied being right from the start. Modern geneticists can read a lot of history from our genes. There is a good probability that a small number (hundreds to a few thousand) of homo sapiens survived an almost-extinction in the southern Cape about 200 thousand years ago. The fact that this small band set out – probably when the situation improved – and went on to populate the whole world, must be sufficient proof that they were essentially go-getters, driven by dissatisfaction with almost any given situation. As with most qualities, one can postulate that there was a genetic spread in the population; some were satisfied to stay in more or less inhospitable places along the way. Some remained in Africa; others returned here at various stages. The salient fact to be drawn from this history is that the consumer society should not come as a surprise. Capitalism is the economic sytem best attuned to this ‘unhappy’ trait. The limitations in resources will force us to recycle more efficiently and use energy more sparingly. Can humankind make rational decisions to ensure a future?

  24. stumpf stumpf 27 October 2012

    and this clow gets trees killed to defecate this stuff?

  25. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 29 October 2012

    You know, you could elaborate a bit. I mean are you referring to homo defecation or gyna defecation? The difference is important because if you don’t specify the gender of the faecal matter, you are fostering the impression at a subliminal level that some gender neutral terms are also fostering impressions at a subliminal level that some genders are somehow prioritised above others. You see, the way to prevent this is to ensure that we take note of the particular gender when it suits us, as well as using gender neutral terms at other times when that suits us. It works like a talisman – or taliswoman, if you will.

  26. deirdre deirdre 31 October 2012

    Although I agree with most of the post, I have to wonder if anyone is actually addressing a fundamental need – that is for social community. I have recently emigrated and have noticed that getting out to the “mall” for my teenage children is critical to their social life. They would rather walk through the shop on their own with people they don’t know around them, than stay in the house. Unfortunately that means they have to have money if they want to stay a bit longer to actually buy something. They are not trying to engage with nature – then they would just go outside – they want to engage with other people who may be like them, perhaps similar product choice could offer an opportunity for mutual interests and relationship.

    As a woman – I can’t speak for the men – although I hate buying “stuff” I enjoy getting out of the house and get into this social space, have a coffee and a meal. So perhaps the problem actually is that we don’t know how to socialise (without money / shopping) rather than assuming people are purchasing to try make them feel happy?

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