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The current world is characterized by postmodernism with a shift in self-conception and removal of national boundaries. In the postmodern industrial world, consumption has taken center-stage. Consumerism has taken over to define the daily life of individuals in respect to their consumption patterns among other aspects of life.
It can be established that postmodernism has been critical in determining the concept of consumer culture. The post-modern world is characterized by increased consumption in which case shopping has become a prominent activity. Also, there has been a shift from the past in which various aspects have changed to adapt to the fast-changing world.
The focus of this paper shall be on the principles of postmodernism and consumerism in the perspectives of various scholars. Apart from this analysis, this paper looks at what has changed, and the reasons for these changes. In addition, this paper shall explain the aspects that have not changed over time.
Herbert Marcuse and Guy Debord wrote their seminal works, “One dimensional man” (1964) and “The Society of Spectacle” (1967), during a period of relative affluence in western capitalist societies.
While their analyses arguably remain relevant and, perhaps, in some ways, even more so-today, western capitalist societies have experienced a steady decline in the standard of living from the 1970s onward under the socioeconomic and geopolitical policies of neoliberalism.
While drawing upon Marcuse and Debord, on the one hand, and Bauman and Baudrillard or Zizek, on the other, this paper analyzes the impact of the changes on how people tend to conceive of themselves and their world.
One dimensional man
Herbert Marcuse in his “One Dimensional Man” asserted that advanced capitalism was suppressive and not free. He also noted that individuals in the modern society were complacent in spiritual and intellectual aspects. This is because the individuals are psychologically dependent on the consumer culture.
He referred to this aspect as repressive desublimation. In his seminal work, Marcuse identifies various new forms of control. He asserts that the modern society is hyped with all the best things including “the concentration of individual enterprises in more effective, more productive corporations; the regulation of free competition among unequally equipped economic subjects; the curtailment of prerogatives and national sovereignties which impede the international organization of resources” (Marcuse, p. 1). As much as all these things seem promising and good, they come with undesirable aspects such as lack of freedom in which the rights and freedoms that were hailed in the formative stages of industrialization have lost their rationale (Marcuse, p. 1).
It can be observed that the freedom of thought and political rights have been denied their rightful purpose within the society. The society appears to satisfy the needs of the people via the manner in which it has been arranged. In such a society, Marcuse observes that there is opposition to alternative views thereby creating authoritarian tendencies (Marcuse, p. 2).
The modern society is characterized by economic freedom. In this respect, it was argued that free market economy was the best as individuals enjoy uncontrolled market. Nonetheless, it should be observed that the concept of free market has come with its disadvantages. Individuals have had to struggle to survive in the free market economy.
They are insecure and live in fear of what might befall them when the market does not favor them (Marcuse, p. 2). The modern industrial society is characterized with technological advancement that aims at increasing efficiency and productivity. This was meant to enhance individual freedom, as opposed to preventing it. On the contrary, the modern society has arranged its technological base in a manner that promotes totalitarianism.
To Marcuse, authoritarian rule is not only described by the political arrangement, but also by how production and distribution systems have been arranged. He goes further to explain that political power can be asserted through control over the technological apparatus in the society (Marcuse, p. 3).
Notably, there has been a shift in the definition of freedom when the current definition is compared to the definition some years back. In essence, the modern society is lacking in its definition of the concept of freedom. Nonetheless, this is not because the older definition of the various freedoms and liberties has become inconsequential.
On the contrary, the elements of freedoms and liberties have become too broad that they cannot be comprehended in the traditional definitions. It can be observed that “new modes of realization are needed, corresponding to the new capabilities of the society” (Marcuse, p. 4). In this respect, Marcuse is of the view that the definition of the freedoms and liberties has had to shift so as to reflect the changes occurring in the society.
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It can be noted that the modern industrial society has been shaped by total mobilization. This is a new society as, in the past, there were trouble spots, which are now being wiped out or left in isolation. This society is characterized by the national economy being centered on big corporations.
In this respect, the governments only stimulate, support and control system. Politically, the society is characterized by the formation of unity and coming together of the opposing parties (Marcuse, p. 21). In essence, one dimensional perspective is enhanced through political perspective, mass production, and mass communication.
The Society of Spectacle
Guy Debord, on his part, wrote the seminal work on “the Society Spectacle”. In his analysis, Debord was of the view that the current industrial society was characterized by the concentration on media and consumer culture. He asserted that spectacle unified and explained a great variety of occurrences.
In his seminal work, Debord traced the advancement of the current industrial society arguing that real life has been turned to mere representation.
It can be asserted that the social life in the modern industrial society has been colonized by the commodity. Debord uses the term “spectacle” to define the modern system that is characterized by capitalism, mass media and the governments that advances the aspects of the modern society.
It can be noted that “the term ‘spectacle’ does not simply denote the mediatization of post-war Western capitalism, but its entire ideology: television; advertising; commodity fetish; super-structure; the whole deceptive appearance of advanced capitalism” (Puchner, p. 6).
The spectacle represents the inverted image of the social system, whereby, relationships consumer products have displaced social relationships between individuals. In this respect, Debord asserts that there is submissive identification with the spectacle that displaces real action.
Spectacle does not refer to the images per se, but this refers to the relations amongst individuals mediated by images. In analyzing the spectacular society, it has to be pointed out that the quality of life in such a society is poor. There is the lack of authenticity, which affects the perception of individuals.
Knowledge has also been degraded as individuals are not allowed to think critically. Knowledge has been used in moderating reality. In this case, the spectacle obscures the historical societal life while crashing it using the future. In this regard, the individuals are prevented from their quest to realize that indeed the society of spectacle is a historical moment, which can be changed through a revolutionary event (Debord and Knabb, p. 15).
Debord was fed up of the events in the modern industrial society in which he lived. He was vocal in criticizing the society for its spectacular tendencies. He aspired to awaken the individuals who he argued that had been submerged in the spectacular society. Debord advocated for a revolution that would see normally restored in reordering of the society.
Therefore, he called for radical revolutions that would involve the construction of situations. Situations can be described as those moments that exhibit self-awareness in respect to existing within a certain environment. In addressing the challenge presented by the spectacle in the society, Debord advocated for the use of spectacular images and language to counter the effect of the spectacle (Debord and Knabb, p. 32).
There is no doubt that the two individuals Marcuse and Debord were critical of the events that were going on in the contemporary societies in which they lived. In essence, Marcuse observed that the advancement of capitalism in the modern, industrial society came with disadvantages.
As much as these developments were hailed for bring efficiency and effectiveness in society, the developments in the industrial society were said to alienate individuals and deny them freedoms and liberties.
The advance in technology coupled with consumer culture did a lot of harm to the society and altered the manner in which liberties and freedoms were viewed. Marcuse called for a revolution that would restore the lost glory of the traditional society.
On his part, Debord was not pleased with the advent of the contemporary consumer culture. He asserted that this development had led to what he called “replacement of real, social life with representations”. To him, the society needed to undergo a revolution that would restore the old order that did not have spectacles.
Therefore, the two authors were critical of the manner in which the society had adapted to the new developments. In particular, they were not satisfied with the manner in which the consumer culture was taking over. This is because the consumer culture had disrupted the traditional setting and brought it new concepts that were not acceptable (Debord and Knabb, p. 43).
Opposition to the views held by Marcuse and Debord
The views held by Marcuse and Debord on the impacts of consumer culture on the society were criticized by other scholars. Notably, Zygmunt Bauman and Jean Baudrillard were vocal in their arguments that seem to favor the consumer culture. Bauman can be regarded as a postmodernist who favored the consumerism culture despite the negatives that have been associated with it by the critics.
Postmodernism seems to discard reality as an orderly set of virtuous and honorable principles. Bauman asserted that truth is characterized by inconspicuousness and inconsistencies. To him, individuals are neither good nor bad. On the contrary, they are morally indecisive and thus cannot live by a decisive and an orderly code of ethics (Bauman (b), p. 5-15). Bauman continues to assert that moral aspects are irregular and not repetitive.
In this case, truth is not connected to a moral phenomenon in a comprehensive manner. Truth is said to be entangled in a contradiction and conflict that is impossible to resolve. Therefore, truth cannot be relied upon in the creation of worldwide moral standards, and is also said to be inherently irrational. It can be observed that truth becomes “matters of individual discretion, risk taking, chronic uncertainty and never-placated qualms” (Bauman (a), p. xxiii).
It can be observed that Bauman was a great supporter of postmodernity. He advocated for this aspect, championing for the benefits that were associated with it. It is noted that:
Post modernity … brings “re-enchantment” of the world after the protracted and earnest, though in the end inconclusive, modern struggle to disenchant it. The postmodern world is one in which mystery is no more a barely tolerated alien awaiting deportation order…. We learn to live with events and acts that are not only not-yet-explained, but inexplicable. We learn again to respect ambiguity, to feel regard for human emotions, to appreciate actions without purpose and calculable rewards (Bauman (b), p. 33).
In this case, in an effort to attract significant consumers, there is a need to incorporate places of consumption in the fascination procedures. The enchantment processes meant to ensure the revival and reinvigoration of meaning that has been lost due to modernism.
On his part, Jean Baudrillard is regarded as a front runner in matters of postmodernism. He asserted that consumerism is closely associated with postmodernism. He noted that individuals held the myth believing that they have needs whose satisfaction is only guaranteed through consumption.
On the contrary, consumer goods cannot guarantee the satisfaction of individuals’ needs. In the modern society, individuals consume the meaning of products instead of consuming the real products. In this respect, individuals are meant to consume the meanings through widespread advertisements and displays that characterize the consumer culture.
It can be noted that consumer culture has emerged as some sort of social labor, replacing the physical labor as argued by Marxists. In this case, consumer culture has been associated with exploitation of the people in the modern society (Baudrillard (b), p. 45).
Postmodernism and consumer culture are closely related, and this makes consumerism a significant challenge than it was during modernism. The consumer culture has been turned into a process of gaining identity. In this regard, individual identify themselves through what they consume (Baudrillard (a), p. 38).
Individuals in the postmodern world engage in consumption because they want to look different. These individuals want to differentiate themselves by what they consume.
There is no doubt that postmodernism is characterized by individuality and differentiation. Therefore, it can be asserted that individuals buy products, not for pleasure, but for creating a difference. In this regard, individuals get to identify themselves through values and lifestyles. This is done when these individuals internalize the symbolic meaning attached to the products that come with consumerism.
In “The Consumer Society”, Baudrillard noted that the logic of exchange value has brought equality among individuals. He presented the notion that individuals pursue their happiness by obtaining products that gratify them. Baudrillard asserts that consumers are actively involved in the social system that characterizes consumerism (Baudrillard (b), p. 23).
Consumption in the modern society is something that is done collectively. Consumption is also known to assure a certain communication within the community. To the consumer, they feel powerful for as long as they are able to consume. In this respect, consumerism has been embraced and acknowledged by the people.
Postmodernism is a broad concept that defines life in the industrial society that is characterized by consumer culture. Scholars of postmodernism have developed varied assertions in respect to this concept. Some of the scholars are critical of this new development accusing it of having altered the manner in which the society was conceived.
On the other hand, some scholars have supported the concept arguing that postmodernism has introduced nothing wrong as consumerism has enhanced the society. Those opposed to postmodernism argue that this concept has alienated individuals from the benefits that they initially enjoyed in the past.
For instance, it has been asserted that freedoms and liberties have been affected a great deal in the postmodern era. The definition of freedoms and liberties has been affected by consumerism, in which case the definitions have shifted from what they were in the past. The freedoms and liberties enjoyed by individuals in the past have been redefined to capture the new trends by postmodernism.
On the contrary, those in support of postmodernism have argued that consumerism plays a critical role in the postmodern era. Consumerism satisfies the needs of individuals in the society. Therefore, individuals get satisfaction through consumption of goods and services that bring gratification.
Bauman, Zygmunt (a). Imitations of Postmodernity. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.
Bauman, Zygmunt (b). Postmodern Ethics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993. Print.
Baudrillard, Jean (a). For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. St. Louis: Telos Press, 1972/1981. Print.
Baudrillard, Jean (b). The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. London: SAGE, 1998, Print.
Debord, Guy and Ken Knabb.The Society of the Spectacle. London: Rebel Press, 2005. Print.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-dimensional man: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1964, Print.
Puchner, Martin. Society of the Counter-Spectacle: Debord and the Theatre of the Situationists. Theatre Research International, 29, 1(2009): 4–15.Print.