[Paleopsych] Hedgehog Review: Zygmunt Bauman: The Self in a Consumer Society

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Zygmunt Bauman: The Self in a Consumer Society

          The economic engines of the postmodern society, Zygmunt Bauman
    argues, have powerful stratifying effects on social life, creating
    divisions that, at the extremes, lead to almost diametrically opposite
    individual experiences of time, distance, and place. "We are all on
    the move," he writes, but at the rich and affluent end of the
    hierarchy, individuals experience themselves participating and
    exulting in the movement characteristic of contemporary life, while
    those at the other, impoverished end are helplessly driven by it.
    Those at one end experience space as a freedom; those at the other end
    experience it as bondage. Here Bauman discusses in general terms the
    ceaseless drive toward change inherent in consumerism and the vast
    economic inequalities that it produces.

          Zygmunt Bauman, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the
    Universities of Leeds and Warsaw, is the author of many books,
    including Modernity and the Holocaust, Postmodern Ethics, and
    Globalization: The Human Consequences.

          Our postmodern society is a consumer society. When we call it a
    consumer society, we have in mind something more than the trivial and
    sedate circumstance that all members of that society are
    consumers--all human beings, and not just human beings, have been
    consumers since time immemorial. What we do have in mind is that ours
    is a "consumer society" in the similarly profound and fundamental
    sense in which the society of our predecessors, modern society in its
    industrial phase, used to be a "producer society." That older type of
    modern society once engaged its members primarily as producers and
    soldiers; society shaped its members by dictating the need to play
    those two roles, and the norm that society held up to its members was
    the ability and the willingness to play them. In its present
    late-modern (Giddens), second-modern (Beck), or post-modern stage,
    modern society has little need for mass industrial labor and conscript
    armies, but it needs--and engages--its members in their capacity as

          The role that our present-day society holds up to its members is
    the role of the consumer, and the members of our society are likewise
    judged by their ability and willingness to play that role. The
    difference between our present-day society and its immediate
    predecessor is not as radical as abandoning one role and picking up
    another instead. In neither of its two stages could modern societies
    do without its members producing things to be consumed, and members of
    both societies do, of course, consume. The consumer of a consumer
    society, however, is a sharply different creature from the consumer of
    any other society thus far. The difference is one of emphasis and
    priorities--a shift of emphasis that makes an enormous difference to
    virtually every aspect of society, culture, and individual life. The
    differences are so deep and multiform that they fully justify speaking
    of our society as a society of a separate and distinct kind--a
    consumer society.

          Ideally, all acquired habits should "lie on the shoulders" of
    that new type of consumer just like the ethically inspired vocational
    and acquisitive passions used to lie, as Max Weber repeated after
    Richard Baxter, "on the shoulders of the `saint like a light cloak,
    which can be thrown aside at any moment.'"[3]^1 And the habits are
    indeed continually, daily, and at first opportunity thrown aside, and
    never given the chance to firm up into the iron bars of a cage (except
    one meta-habit: the "habit of changing habits"). Ideally, nothing
    should be embraced by a consumer firmly, nothing should command a
    commitment forever, no needs should be seen as fully satisfied, no
    desires considered ultimate. There ought to be a proviso "until
    further notice" attached to any oath of loyalty and any commitment. It
    is the volatility, the in-built temporality of all engagements that
    counts; it counts more than the commitment itself, which anyway is not
    allowed to outlast the time necessary for consuming the object of
    desire (or the desirability of that object).

          That all consumption takes time is in fact the bane of the
    consumer society and a major worry for the merchandisers of consumer
    goods. The consumer's satisfaction ought to be instant and this in a
    double sense. Consumed goods should bring satisfaction immediately,
    requiring no learning of skills and no lengthy groundwork, but the
    satisfaction should end the moment the time needed for consumption is
    up, and that time ought to be reduced to bare minimum. The needed
    reduction is best achieved if the consumers cannot hold their
    attention nor focus their desire on any object for long; if they are
    impatient, impetuous, and restive; and above all if they are easily
    excitable and predisposed to quickly lose interest. Indeed when the
    waiting is taken out of wanting and the wanting out of waiting, the
    consumptive capacity of consumers may be stretched far beyond the
    limits set by any natural or acquired needs or designed by the
    physical endurability of the objects of desire. The traditional
    relationship between needs and their satisfaction is then reversed:
    the promise and hope of satisfaction precedes the need promised to be
    satisfied and will be always greater than the extant need--yet not too
    great to preclude the desire for the goods which carry that promise.

          As a matter of fact, the promise is all the more attractive the
    less the need in question is familiar; there is a lot of fun in living
    through an experience one did not know existed. The excitement of a
    new and unprecedented sensation--not the greed of acquiring and
    possessing nor wealth in its material, tangible sense--is the name of
    the consumer game. Consumers are first and foremost gatherers of
    sensations; they are collectors of things only in a secondary and
    derivative sense. As Mark C. Taylor and Esa Saarinen put it, "Desire
    does not desire satisfaction. To the contrary, desire desires
    desire."[4]^2 Such is the case at any rate with the ideal consumer.
    The prospect of the desire fading off, dissipating, and having nothing
    in sight to resurrect it, or the prospect of a world with nothing left
    in it to be desired, must be the most sinister of the ideal consumer's
    horrors (and, of course, of the consumer-goods merchandiser's

          To increase their capacity for consumption, consumers must never
    be left to rest. They need to be constantly exposed to new temptations
    to keep them in the state of perpetual suspicion and steady
    disaffection. The bait commanding them to shift attention needs to
    confirm the suspicion while offering a way out of disaffection: "You
    reckoned you'd seen it all? You ain't seen nothing yet!" It is often
    said that the consumer market seduces its customers. But in order to
    do so, it needs customers who want to be seduced (just as to command
    his laborers, the factory boss needed a crew with the habits of
    discipline and command-following firmly entrenched). In a properly
    working consumer society, consumers seek actively to be seduced. They
    live from attraction to attraction, from temptation to
    temptation--each attraction and each temptation being somewhat
    different and perhaps stronger than its predecessor. In many ways they
    are just like their fathers, the producers, who lived from one turn of
    the conveyer belt to an identical next.

          This cycle of desire is a compulsion, a must, for the
    fully-fledged, mature consumer; yet that must, that internalized
    pressure, that impossibility of living one's life in any other way, is
    seen as the free exercise of one's will. The market might have already
    selected them as consumers and so taken away their freedom to ignore
    its blandishments, but in every successive visit to the market-place,
    consumers have every reason to feel that it is they who are in
    command. They are the judges, the critics, and the choosers. They can,
    after all, refuse their allegiance to any one of the infinite choices
    on display--except the choice of choosing among them.

          It is the combination of the consumer, constantly greedy for new
    attractions and fast bored with attractions already had, and of the
    world in all its dimensions--economic, political,
    personal--transformed after the pattern of the consumer market and,
    like that market, ready to oblige and change its attractions with ever
    accelerating speed, that wipes out all fixed signposts from an
    individual map of the world or from the plans for a life itinerary.
    Indeed, traveling hopefully is in this situation much better than to
    arrive. Arrival has that musty smell of the end of the road, that
    bitter taste of monotony and stagnation that signals the end to
    everything for which the ideal consumer lives and considers the sense
    of living. To enjoy the best this world has to offer, you may do all
    sorts of things except one: to declare, after Goethe's Faust, "O
    moment, you are beautiful, last forever!"

          And so we all travel, whether we like it or not. We have not
    been asked about our feelings anyway. Thrown into a vast and open sea
    with no tracks and milestones fast sinking, we may rejoice in the
    breath-taking vistas of new discoveries or tremble out of fear of
    drowning. How does one voyage on these stormy seas--seas that
    certainly call for strong boats and skillful navigators? This becomes
    the question. Even more so when one understands that the more vast the
    expanse of free sailing, the more the sailor's fate tends to be
    polarized and the deeper the chasm between the poles.

          But there is a catch. Everybody may be cast into the mode of
    consumer; everybody may wish to be a consumer and indulge in the
    opportunities which that mode of life holds. But not everybody can be
    a consumer. Desire is not enough; to squeeze the pleasure out of
    desire, one must have a reasonable hope of obtaining the desired
    object, and while that hope is reasonable for some, it is futile for
    others. All of us are doomed to the life of choices, but not all of us
    have the means to be choosers.

          But you can tell one kind of society from another by the
    dimensions along which it stratifies its members, and, like all other
    societies, the postmodern, consumer society is a stratified one. Those
    "high up" and "low down" are plotted in a society of consumers along
    the lines of mobility--the freedom to choose where to be. Those "high
    up" travel through life to their hearts' desire and pick and choose
    their destinations by the joys they offer. Those "low down" are thrown
    out from the site they would rather stay in, and if they do not move,
    it is the site that is pulled from under their feet. When they travel,
    their destination, more often than not, is of somebody else's choosing
    and seldom enjoyable; and when they arrive, they occupy a highly
    unprepossessing site that they would gladly leave behind if they had
    anywhere else to go. But they don't. They have nowhere else to go;
    there is nowhere else where they are likely to be welcomed.

    [5]^1 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,
    trans. Talcott Parsons (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1976) 181. ]
    [6]^2 Mark C. Taylor and Esa Saarinen, "Telerotics," Imagologies:
    Media Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1994) 11. ]

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