Living in Madrid, Spain, but returning for the holidays to my home country, Canada, I have been able to observe how ubiquitous the year end pastime of Christmas shopping is in our Western culture. The frenzied rushing in shopping malls, fuelled by a palpable sense of urgency, seems to confirm the belief that we are indeed in an unashamedly consumer society.
This suggestion brings to mind the paper by Colin Campbell, I Shop Therefore I Know That I Am: The Metaphysical Basis of Modern Consumerism (2004). This is a reference to Descartes’ famous dictum – I think, therefore I am (cogito ergo sum), a classic dualist ontology that assigns true being to immaterial thought (res cogitans). Campbell uses Descartes in order to underline what he calls the “emotional ontology” of contemporary Western culture and how it relates to the problem of personal identity. The reality of the self is immaterial, but it is no longer thought or knowledge; it is feeling.
By emotional ontology I mean that the true judge of whether something is real or not is taken to be its power to arouse an emotional response in us. The more powerful the response experienced the more ‘real’ the object or event that produced it is judged to be. At the same time, the more intense our response, the more ‘real’ – or the more truly ourselves – we feel ourselves to be at that moment… If we then apply this doctrine to the question of identity and the ‘self’ we can conclude that it is through the intensity of feeling that individuals gain the reassurance they need to overcome their existential angst and hence gain the reassuring conviction that they are indeed ‘alive.’ (Campbell, Colin. I Shop… 15)
Campbell argues that consumer culture today combines desire and individualism in such a way that the shopping experience – purchasing a product – not only re-affirms one’s sense of free and unique identity in a sea of commercial choice but it also displaces the importance of need in favour of what the consumer wants: “When it comes to wanting only the ‘wanter’ can claim to be an ‘expert.’ Naturally therefore it follows that such a mode of consumption is inherently individualistic, with the authority for decision-making located firmly within the self” (ibid 5).
Nonetheless, despite its apparent self-evidence, I ask the reader to reconsider this perspective – and on the basis of a common example.
Imagine a single mother with children, with a low income, and with Christmas just around the corner. No one will question or judge the fact that she feels a tremendous pressure to buy presents for her children, and will do everything in her power to leave gifts under the tree from Santa Claus on Christmas morning. It is not hard to imagine, in fact, that she might run the risk of going broke – not being able to afford the basic necessities – just to be able to buy children’s toys.
In this example, desire has indeed usurped need: toys are not a basic life necessity. But the mother certainly feels the pressure like a need, as if the social pressure would be indistinguishable from parental obligation. And there is little evidence of Campbell’s individualism either. The gesture here is pure self-sacrifice. The presents the mother buys are not for herself. And, if they are to be from Santa, she will not even get the credit for all her generosity and sacrifice. It is as if the desires of society and her children have supplanted her own: as if the mother’s self was a composite of others’ desires.
For Campbell, shopping is an “ideal context” for re-affirming one’s identity “as long as one is not thinking of provisioning or gift purchasing” – that is, thinking of others – but as long as one is actively “directed to meeting the wants of the self” (Campbell, I Shop… 16). But at Christmas time, our wants are composed out of the desires of others. Consumer shopping may not only pose questions about identity affirmation but it may question the very notion of identity itself.
This is why Frank Trentmann’s work, The Making of the Consumer (2006), refers to the subjectivities of the consumer which are varied and multiple (Trentmann 2). The being of the consumer – his or her ontology – is historically grounded, constructed, made possible thanks to a series of interconnected elements that are not restricted to purely subjective affects.
The attention given in recent discussions to self and creativity, signs and symbols has significantly enhanced our understanding of the diverse ways in which consumption is tied to people’s plural identities… [But] there is a danger here of assigning the consumer an essential position within these complex large scale social formations… that erases from view the dynamic process and changing formation of this person in different contexts. (Trentmann, Frank. Knowing Consumers 4-5)
The consumer does not merely appear, ready-made, in the supermarket but also manifests her or himself in different ways in the fields of education, law, home, politics and so on. Consumption, Trentmann points out, also has collective forms (monopoly provision, planning, rationing) as well as altruistic ones (socialised medicare, consumer activism).
To study “the making of the consumer as subject and object” means to examine all the subjective as well as intersubjective factors that went into making today’s active consumer possible (ibid 2). To take our example of the single mother at Christmas time, it is necessary to take more than her wants and feelings into account. The popular Santa Claus myth also plays a large role, making her feel a necessity where, in fact, there is none. And the history of Santa is inseparable from the historical imbrications of market capitalism and media advertising. (The image of Santa most people have today is largely based on Coca-Cola® advertising.)
Perhaps the real challenge facing today’s consumer is not to select one amongst a wide variety of identities, like a person changes clothes, but to find a way to forge any kind of identity at all.