Media and Consumer Desire

Historian Neil Harris’s 1978 essay “The Drama of Consumer Desire” (included in this collection) is an attempt to historicize the transformation of consumption into consumerism, tracking how the connections between consumer products and personal identity began to be forged by the beginning of the 20th century. He is mainly concerned with the “works of fiction which placed the buying process within the social experience”: how characters in novels modeled for readers what it meant to be a consumer, and how to derive pleasure from consumption beyond the use value of any particular good.

Novels were part of the larger ideological matrix encompassing all media that performed this function, operating in the face of what was initially a conservative critique that recognized how “mass society” threatened traditional class hierarchies and religious-based notions of what was proper behavior, particularly for those in dominated social positions. (Incidentally, this conservative critique currently lives on in the artisanal fetish, the idea that restricted choice in the market and compulsory manufacture for personal use constitute due penance to be paid for longings for sensual satisfaction and yield experiences that are held to somehow be “more real.” For such critics “reality” is pegged to the traditional limitations placed on experience by one’s social station; the “maker ethos” often disguises a set of sumptuary laws.)

Harris quotes Dreiser’s Sister Carrie to show the elaboration of the emerging “consumer sensibility.”

There is nothing in this world more delightful than that middle state in which we mentally balance at times, possessed of the means, lured by desire, and yet deterred by conscience or want of decision.

This posits the pleasures of consumerism in shopping, not ownership or use. Ownership and use only demystify the goods in question, whereas shopping activates them, brings them to life in the imagination. Moralists have long condemned this enjoyment of the cultural attributes of goods rather than their functionality, but it is a recognition that consumption is social rather than purely private, that shopping, when it expresses identity, plugs people into more fluid, fashion-driven means for having a social presence. It allows consumers to trade traditional circumscriptions on identity for new-fangled ones bound up with the incentives of retailers.

According to Harris’s analysis, this imaginative pleasure in shopping emerges directly from capitalist competition, which prompts retailers to devise new ways to create rather than satisfy demand. As retailers tried to compete on the level of the brand, appeals were made to consumers on the level of how they feel about buying something, urging them to experience shopping itself as more pleasurable, more convenient, more fulfilling, more distinctive.

Driven by keener competition, shop owners now realized how crucial was eye appeal to retailing success ... In place of merely showing goods, stores were displaying tableaus and pictures suggesting locale, mood, or historic incident. Captivated by such pictures, customers stopped, to purchase their ideals of fantasy as well as the specific commodity.

This move detaches "consumer demand” from any kind of organic basis and makes it wholly malleable, manipulatable. This not only prompts retailers to try to manufacture desire; it also liberates consumers from the belief that their traditional place in society has totally conditioned their desire and set certain “natural” limits on it. Instead anyone can and should want whatever can be made to seem desirable. The nature of desire changes, from a desire to epitomize one’s station to a desire for novelty and self-elaboration, in terms of the traits that can be read out of goods.

Such self-elaboration means constant testing of one’s self-image against society’s reactions, since the traditional criteria have been discarded. Hence, part of consumption becomes display of that consumption, as its purpose is not to sate some eternal, intrinsic material need but to express something new about the person you want to be. Consumption as consumerism produces an image of the self, stages a performance and an audience evaluation.

In other words, media becomes central to consumption: One is only consuming in consumer society if it is conspicuous. There is no such thing as inconspicuous consumption.

Harris notes the importance of cinema’s advent to “enhancing the social role of consumer goods,” not merely by glamorizing them but simply by demonstrating how they could be deployed to signify qualities about characters and situations.

The image on the movie screen inevitably focused attention on the objects which formed part of its decor. The lingering closeups, the use of music to emphasize mood, the employment of objects and sets as significant aspects of plot and character development, all emphasized the sensuous properties of what might have been seen, more casually, as mundane artifacts, hardly deserving of sustained attention.

As a result, movies (like novels had before them, but with more immediacy) habituated viewers to “examining the surfaces, shapes, and dimensions of objects with new interest.” Movies made people “read” consumer goods, which taught them how to write with them as well.

Through such representations, mediated consumption becomes the standard form of consumerism, and the desire for objects becomes melded with the desire for attention. Thus, consumption generally stimulates a demand for more and more media with which to broadcast it. This has culminated for now in the proliferation of social media, which function as means to broadcast consumerist desire, whether or not the consumption takes place in material terms. As Harris's analysis suggests, all media serve to make consumption productive; social media extend that productivity to the furthest point yet.

What emerges from this process of mediating consumption is the association of goods with a variety of inferable attributes, affective states, spiritual overtones, and the like. Mediating consumption makes it have signifying capabilities; once that is established it only remains for audiences to negotiate the specific meanings in various contexts. Mediation establishes what Baudrillard called “the code” and mediating the self, linking it to goods as signs, assimilates our identity to the code, making it another sign among signs. As Harris puts it, goods move from "expressions of status to guarantors of identity" as the act of consumption becomes more intensively mediated.

As the mediation of consumption has intensified, it has become increasingly immaterial. Once, consumerism as a system hinged on the idea that you had to buy the physical goods to try to stabilize those goods’ particular meanings for yourself. (Jean-Christophe Agnew’s essay about the “acquisitive gaze” makes that case; I discussed that here.) But social media allow for such stabs at stabilization through appropriation rather than purchasing. You can mediate your shopping without consuming anything more than images, available for free. As the pleasures of shopping are mainly found in access to the social, indications that you belong to the network can replace the implied social pleasures that ownership of goods once provided. We want to consume the signs of our social relevance, our belonging, more than we want to consume or own stuff. Images of stuff can be valorized by circulating them; they need no original use cases as real stuff to establish their potential value. (This may mean that what Pop Art anticipated has come to pass, that all consumable stuff becomes art when mediated and subjectified, at least if you take art to mean something that is desirably useless.)

For the novelists Harris examines, the transformation of shopping into performance was lamentable, an indication that "consuming is one of the few art forms left to individuals; their expression of purpose and self must be in terms of what they can buy, for there is no other standard of value." But that view seems less pernicious, less tragic, when you change "what they can buy" to "what they can appropriate." Mediated consumption makes explicit the latent creativity in trying to wrestle pleasure out of the things of this world and out of the potential connections we might form with others through those things. That we must mediate our relations with others though these networks, these performances, these things, is perhaps a different problem, not to be blamed on the supposedly intrinsic inadequacies of the art of appropriation itself.