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

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Zygmunt Bauman: The Self in a Consumer Society
The Hedgehog Review - Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

[I also sent this before. As an economist, I've never understood this business 
about the "consumer society." Economics has always been about production, 
exchange, and consumption, and wants are always unlimited. Still, the 
persistence of the *sociological* idea of the "consumer society" should not be 
dismissed. It's just that I have a terrible time getting a handle on it. Help!]

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.'"^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."^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.

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

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