Consumerism Without Consumption Without Consumerism

A Column by Rob Horning

Issue no5
Oct / Nov 2017

In The System of Objects (1968), Jean Baudrillard argued that with the advent of consumer society, people no longer consumed objects but their connnotations: “If it has any meaning at all, consumption means an activity consisting of the systematic manipulation of signs.” As apt as that definition might be, it leaves little room for assessing how a consumer society circulates and exhausts physical goods. So it may be useful to term what Baudrillard is describing as consumerism, while reserving consumption for the social processes dealing with the physical objects. The marketing and branding of food is consumerism and the fact of its digestion, consumption. In advertising-cliché terms, consumption is the steak; consumerism is the sizzle.

Consumerism and consumption always co-exist. But technology is helping us believe they can be separated, enjoyed independently of the limits the one places on the other. Social media and ubiquitous digital connectivity have made it possible to run in both directions at once, toward consumerism without consumption, and toward consumption without consumerism.

If one could consume without consumerism, one would have pure access to the use value of a good without any ornamentation, the exchange value. This would absolve consumers from consumerism’s apparent sins — the poseurdom and the apparent superficiality of signifying the self through branded goods. You get what you want, but without the friction of choosing or having to weigh how others will interpret what you consume.

Consumers are saturated with choice — a condition that the internet, with its proliferation of retail sites and mechanisms for customization, has exacerbated. But tech also has a solution for the surfeit of choice it generates: algorithmically generated recommendations and “on-demand” apps for the procurement of everything from car services to meals to laundry, all of which downplay the consumer’s effort in having to choose among different brands in favor of the pure, simple choice of immediacy. These “sharing” apps seem to bring physical products up to speed with the digital — just as phones deliver data instantaneously, apps deliver everything else almost as fast.

What is “shared” through these apps is a fantasy that one can be liberated from brands by replacing them with “platforms.” These platforms appear to efficiently match atomized buyers and sellers along purely rational lines, aspiring to a monopoly status that would make their branding superfluous. If a consumer is using the “Uber for” whatever, it doesn’t matter who actually makes or delivers the service. In this realm of “frictionless consumption,” physical objects are just logistical data (and not expressive signifiers), right up until the point of consumption. Consumers can see themselves as enthroned at the center of a private universe; your finger glides across a screen that only you see, and what you want simply arrives.

On the other side are social curation sites like Tumblr and Pinterest, which allow for a direct appropriation and display of goods’ signifying capabilities without having to use them, let alone purchase them. These turn the phone from an isolation machine into a portal for unending social connection, assessment, and recognition. Consumers can perform for one another with curated images of goods, developing ever more elaborate ways to signify taste and character, indulging as much as they want in the imaginative, evocative qualities associated with goods without ever having to touch them. The goods, in fact, may be conventionally unconsumable — impossible objects that exist only as digital images.

Because there is no actual consumption on these sites, there is no moment when a good is used up, no moment of reckoning about whether it ever really embodied the traits associated with it. One need not waste on goods that one wants only as personality props. Instead, there is endless possibility for communication, for the social connection that implies. Unlike physical goods, images of goods can go viral and become more semiotically potent.

Both the on-demand economy and curation sites are presented by their advocates as anti-consumerist choices that undermine key components of consumer capitalism’s machinery. They disrupt established markets, challenge the authority of brands, upset the logic of property, rationalize the creation of demand, and so on. But considered together, they show how technology allows users to have more consumerism and more consumption, as both proliferate without the ideological checks that the other process places on them. Consumers can intermittently blind themselves to the other pole and see their own behavior in the most flattering light. This in turn intensifies the exploitation, commodification, waste, and environmental degradation that is endemic with consumer society.

The procedures that were anticonsumerist become commodified signifiers of “anticonusmerism” as a lifestyle, the delusional belief that one’s consumption choices are autonomous and somehow transcend the logic governing those of other people. But the search for an “authentic” escape from self-branding results in saturating one’s life with branding logic. And the search for a more “authentic” way to curate one’s life apart from “conspicuous consumption” makes that curation limitless and self-negating, with each perfectly chosen image diluting every other perfect choice. The process of consumption becomes a consumer choice; consumerism and consumption collapse into each other again, until another technological advance promises to separate them once more and start the cycle anew.

The consumption of art too is caught up in this same conundrum: No art object is so "authentic" that it can transcend processes of social valuation (that is, it is not an occasion for pure consumption beyond socially strategic choice). Likewise, no process of making art is so dematerialized that it can evade the deformations of market valuation. We may look to art as a respite from consumerism, as an opportunity to indulge in disinterested contemplation, but the same qualities that make it appealing as an escape from consumerism also make it the best possible vehicle for it. Pure anti-consumerism is just consumerism perfected.


Rob Horning

is executive editor van The New Inquiry, New York


Thanks to Nathan Jurgenson, with whom the ideas in this essay were developed

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