i haven't yet seen this on any major news sites yet, but apparently French theorist Baudrillard died today. Baudrillard wrote on consumerism, among other things, and liked to push the limits of conventional analytic categories like "needs" and "wants," arguing for instance that even the will to live is socially conditioned and circumscribed.
Recently in consumption Category
an interesting, if largely predictable article in the Times explores the growing consumer trend of buying brands and labels observed on television, especially fashion items such as shoes, clothing, and jewelry. the article tracks the increasing number of websites dedicated to connecting consumers to the brands sported by their favorite characters on shows like Veronica Mars, Grey's Anatomy, and Desperate Housewives. of course, popular media have long acted as vehicles that define current styles in fashion and drive accelerated consumption. while it's interesting to look at how these nascent websites are capitalizing on consumer interest in celebrity fashion, the article predictably parrots the superficial assertion that consumers are simply celebrity-obsessed, and have no independent taste or style of their own. according to this line of thinking, consumers (predominantly female) slavishly attempt to replicate the look of their favorite celebrities, in a debasing act of simian mimesis. as usual, this kind of account obscures the underlying economic strategies that drive taste and consumption in our culture.
fashion and style, in fact, often act as signifiers of status and position, in which the more elite and inaccessible products confer the greatest status (or cultural capital, as sociologist Bourdieu would have put it). celebrities, as members of the elite class, must continually seek out cultural goods and styles that are limited in availability, and which require insider knowledge to identify and acquire (the latest labels in "premium denim," cutting-edge couturiers, outrageously expensive designer shoes and bags, etc). once these products (or looks) become more widely known and available, their signifying power becomes attenuated, and those in elite circles must find other fashions to continue asserting their status. for middle-class consumers, these products are appealing not because so many women want to ape characters on TV, but because they promise to confer a certain kind of cultural credibility, indicating that the wearer is "in the know."
by suggesting that consumers are simply "celebrity-obsessed," the media continues to overlook a hierarchical status structure that continually reinforces the symbolic and economic power of certain groups over others. consumers are held solely responsble for elective fashion decisions, and the broader cultural and social context fades into the background, allowing readers to shake their heads in contempt for women who seem so beholden to popular images that they can't exercise any kind of sartorial independence. nowhere does the article investigate why certain programs inspire this kind of duplication more than others, nor does it explore the very gendered nature of this consumption. unsurprisingly, the Times simply perpetuates the very consumerism it purports to deride, by participating in the mystification of underlying economic structures.
vinyl and fishnet may be acceptable for the spooky set, but the Post reported this week that, according to researchers from the American Psychological Association, increasing sexualization of young girls contributes to harmful outcomes such as eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. this kind of alarmist article inevitably incites pricks of trepidation as i read through it. i share the researchers' concern for the impact of marketing and consumerism on young people (both male and female, of a range of ages) -- at best, marketing exploits insecurities about body image, attractiveness, and social self-worth to motivate consumption of products that purport to ameliorate our perceived flaws. consumption practices, moreover, tie into broader schemas of social status, in which accelerated consumption promises to keep us ahead of the latest trend curves to maintain our social position, when fundamentally, the economic system benefits the small minority who hold power in our society.
yet despite my deep reservations about this cycle of marketing and consumption, i remain equally concerned about the kind of moral hyperventilating over girls emulating adult sexuality. the APA researchers appear to be dovetailing Ariel Levy's superficial line of reasoning around "raunch feminism," the notion that pop culture has co-opted feminist values of sex-positivism and female empowerment, regurgitating them into a raunchy obsession with stripper fashion and porn imagery -- pole-dancing classes and waxed nethers, chintzy thongs and salacious baby tees. ever since bobby socks came into fashion, if not earlier, adolescent girls have been clashing with their elders over the sexual propriety of their sartorial choices -- often in collusion with marketers who benefit from selling the image of maturity to young people.
but in examining this issue of girls and "sexualization," we need to look more closely at the ways in which our society tends to project fears about social and sexual reproduction onto young people -- especially young women. while the researchers acknowledged that boys can be targeted as well, social fears about sexual precocity inevitably revolve around girls, whose bodies are far more likely to become objects for control and obsession. in a culture that continually defines women's worth in terms of their appearance and attractiveness, why are we surprised when younger and younger girls are targeted and affected by these messages? and how ironic is it that we sexualize young girls as part of marketing schemes, and at the same time, attempt to punish and control sex offenders more and more harshly. are we really so repulsed by the sexualization of children, or are we continually lured by it?
of course, the liberal media and blogosphere (like Salon's otherwise excellent Broadsheet) just lap up this kind of study with little thought or criticism for the underlying assumptions or methodology.
i finally took a look at Adam Sternbergh's article on "grups" in the New York Metro (Up with Grups), who theorizes that the latest generation of adults (read: mostly white, college-eduated, in professional careers) doesn't want to grow up. instead, they insist on wearing distressed designer jeans and the converse they wore in high school, while listening to the latest indie hits on their iPods. Sternbergh contends that "grups" (from a star trek episode about a planet run by children who never grow up) are eliding the "generation gap," hanging on to youthfulness, listening to the same music and wearing the same styles as the younger generation -- including their own children.
but Sternbergh seems to be raising alarm without considering the broader cultural context of youth and consumerism. pop culture overall has become increasingly difficult to distinguish from youth culture -- most popular music, movies, and websites are all the domain of the under 30. images of youthfulness drive advertising, and business itself was revolutionized in the sixties by the youth counterculture, which emphasized individuality, originality, novelty and creativity (according to Thomas Frank). i've often wondered if the esteem placed on being young would ultimately rob many of us from enjoying our adulthood -- but perhaps, as Sternbergh ultimately concludes, adulthood itself will take on new meanings and possibilities.
underlying Sternbergh's concerns about grups, however, lurk insidious cultural ideas about the value and meaning of maturity. he doesn't come out and say it, but really the article is questioning whether nor not GenXers are turning into immature adults who groom their kids to listen to whatever's hip this week, and who won't settle down and accept adult responsibilities. they don't want to become middle managers, accept 9-5 hours, or wear suits like their own parents did. some of these notions regarding maturity, however, reflect a strange adherence to certain cultural relativisms. i understand that suits signify a particular competence and masculine maturity -- but even the modern suit is more streamlined than its Victorian (and earlier) predecessors. norms do change, especially given both the accelerated rate of consumption in our society, and an economy that depends on new trends and fashions to spur ongoing acquisition.
if anything, Sternbergh's "grups" embody the height of late modern consumerism, and the shift from meaningful work to meaningful leisure. grups find meaning through leisure activities -- their passion for music, fashion, even surfing. it's leisure that drives consumption -- new cds, new tech gadgets and appliances, new clothes. so i don't find it surprising that grups, like many people, want to have kids, nor that they're raising their kids according to their values, which emphasize leisure and consumption. these trends Sternbergh identifies may indicate broader social changes regarding the value of work, leisure, consumerism and youthfulness, but if so, they reflect the ongoing development of late capitalism, as transformed by the cultural movements of the last century.
A new music swapping website went live earlier this week, that seeks to offer an extensive and diverse music catalog online while fostering communities of like-minded fans. Lala.com's model appears to combine a social networking site with an online place to trade used cds, without violating copyright. The move toward networking-style sites like this doesn't surprise me, but I have to wonder how strongly it will appeal to most people. On the one hand, youth culture tends to revolve around musical genres, so building community according to musical taste shouldn't be difficult. The site, however, apparently charges a $1 per album swapped, which seems like a good deal -- except that you don't get to keep the cd. Nothing can prevent you from burning a copy, of course, but that may be the snag that gets this new venture into trouble.
I suspect Lala.com will prove most adept at helping people find more music they like, through meeting others online with similar taste. But I wonder how effective its business model can be -- would you pay a $1 to borrow a cd for a while? Would you just rip it to your music library and pass it on, or would you respect copyright law and purchase your favorite new discoveries? It may come down to how members of Lala.com listen to and consume music, and whether this approach can successfully override our endless thirst for accumulation.
I wrote a few weeks ago about a long-term study that supposedly calls into question the value of low-fat diets for women's health the Women's Health Initiative. Of course, the media coverage has glossed over some of the more significant details of the study, like how few of the women on the "low-fat" diet succeeded in meeting the target percentage of calories from fat -- overall, they didn't consume much less fat than the control group (for a more nuanced report of the results, you can read NIH's press release). Last week, NPR seemed to be backtracking a little, covering the study in somewhat more depth and addressing the media's role in oversimplifying the findings. Of course, they didn't really admit their own role in this, or how the various media outlets participated in creating a story by promoting a polarized view of the study's results.
But what's more, this study touches on the disparity between medically accepted ideals of healthy eating and actual food practices. Food guidelines and nutritional advice are worthless unless people can actually implement them in their lives. And what we eat comes down to how we eat -- preparing vs. buying meals, grocery shopping vs. going out, and what's available for purchase in the first place. Food consumption can not be divorced from food production -- and distribution. And food production in the US is still dominated by agribusiness and mass production, in which hardiness, shelf-life, and appearance trump nutritional quality or taste.
I think this issue becomes painfully evident when you consider the USDA's emphasis on eating more fruits and vegetables. Whenever I stop by a large supermarket, I'm reminded of just how poor the quality of most mass produce is. Why would I want to eat more wan, mealy, waxy apples or translucent, tasteless lettuce? It's much easier to incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet when you can afford to shop at somewhere crunchy like San Francisco's Rainbow Grocery, or live in an area with farmer's markets and CSAs (community supported agriculture: small, organic farms that sell shares to members). Even when it comes to processed foods like peanut butter, most of what's available in big supermarket chains contains added trans fat, salt and sugar -- even if cost weren't an issue, it's still difficult for most people to purchase less refined products.
Changing diet requires changing how people consume food -- you can't reduce how much processed food you eat unless you start investing more time in preparing meals for yourself. But at the same time, no amount of personal responsibility can substitute for having access to appealing, fresh, flavorful ingredients. Unfortunately, it's not possible with our current food production system to offer local, seasonal foods in all regions and across all income levels. Which means, practically, that diets are not going to change, no matter how many gimmicky salad options MacDonald's tries to sell to rescue its Supersized image. While it seems unlikely that CSAs alone represent a solution at thes national level, I think it is necessary to reconsider how we produce and distribute food if we want to address how we consume it.
French sociologist Marcel Mauss once described Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest who used gift exchange to establish social hierarchies, displaying wealth through sumptuous banquets and excessive consumption. Gift-giving, of course, represents a significant site of consumption in modern American society as well, from birthdays to an ever-growing list of holidays -- Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Administrative Assistant Appreciation Day (or whatever they're calling it now).
In particular, I was reminded this past Christmas of how our entire economy revolves around the seasonal holiday gift exchange -- buying each other iPods and DVDs and all other manner of consumer goods. The retail industry pretty much depends on the Christmas season to stay in business, even if many Americans must accumulate credit card debt to meet their perceived social obligations. But gift-giving hasn't lost its potential to assert and reproduce social hierarchies, as the very act of giving can place the giver in a superior social position, particularly when that person has greater wealth and resources. Parents often give excessively to their children, and in many social rituals, men are expected to lavish consumables on women -- whether it's roses and chocolates on Valentine's Day, or expensive jewelry to cement a long-term commitment like an engagement.
So I wonder, then, about the social implications of a consumer society that depends on financially precarious gift-exchange to sustain itself economically. For many of us, gift-giving may represent an expression of affection and may strengthen social bonds, but to what degree does it further entrench existing social hierarchies of power and dependence?
I've been away from here for a bit, thanks to the holidays and other demands on my time in the past few months. Hopefully, I'm back now, and will be able to continue writing regularly! Among other topics, I was amused the other day by NPR's coverage of a recent study suggesting that low-fat diets don't lower the risk of heart disease and other health problems.
One commentator suggested that consumers (when did we become consumers?) may be confused by the results of this study, given how long the AMA and other medical organizations have been promoting low-fat, high fiber diets to prevent disease. If you actually read any of the many articles online the study, of course, it wasn't all that confusing in the least -- the researchers tracked a large group of women over a number of years, noting total fat intake but not distinguishing between different kinds of fat. Moreover, most of the participants on the "low-fat" diet didn't succeed in lowering their percentage of calories from fat to the target level, so their diets were only slightly lower in fat than the control group. Ultimately, the study concludes that lowering fat in general may not have much of an impact on longterm health, but had little to say on the advantages of a diet low in saturated fat and higher in vegetable oils.
Suffice to say, of course the public finds the study confusing -- reporters all over the country proclaimed "low fat diets have no impact on disease!" and then go on to explain how actually the study is more complicated than that. As far as I can tell, the researchers didn't find the results nearly as surprising as the news outlets, who are selling the story based on its supposed divergence from mainstream medical thought. It's the media creating the story -- and the confusion! So it seems a little ironic for anyone in the media to wonder why the public might be confused. Thanks, NPR!