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In this article, we elaborate on various key ideas about consumption and consumer from a theoretical position that we have labeled ''liberatory postmodernism.'' By unmasking the limitations of modernism that have to do with the onerous nature of its metanarratives and narrow conventionalism, we show that postmodern developments offer alternate visions of consumption processes that have an emancipatory potential. The analysis in our article begins with a discussion of the philosophical foundations of modernism and postmodernism followed by a cultural critique of modernism-exposing, for example, the modernist distinction between production and consumption and the privileging of production over consumption. We demonstrate how postmodernism is concerned with the reversing of the conditions of modernity and with a wide range of issues regarding the construction of the subject (i.e., the consumer), the role of the symbolic in consumption processes, the notion of the spectacularization of life, the creation of the hyperreal, and the cultural signification of fragmentation. We conclude the article with a proposal for an epistemology of consumption that subsumes scientific knowledge under a broader category of narrative knowledge and recognizes multivocality of consumption forms.
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Liberatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption
Author(s): A. Fuat Firat and Alladi Venkatesh
The Journal of Consumer Research,
Vol. 22, No. 3 (Dec., 1995), pp. 239-267
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Journal of Consumer Research.
In this article, we elaborate on various key ideas about consumption and consumer
from a theoretical position that we have labeled "liberatory postmodernism." By
unmasking the limitations
of modernism that have to do with the onerous nature of
its metanarratives and narrow conventionalism, we show that postmodern devel-
opments offer alternate visions of consumption processes that have an emancipatory
potential. The analysis in our article begins with a discussion of the philosophical
foundations of modernism and postmodernism followed by a cultural critique of
modernism-exposing, for example, the modernist distinction between production
and consumption and the privileging
of production over consumption. We demon-
strate how postmodernism is concerned with the reversing of the conditions of
modernity and with a wide range of issues regarding the construction of the subject
(i.e., the consumer), the role of the symbolic in consumption processes, the notion
of the spectacularization of life, the creation of the hyperreal, and the cultural sig-
nification of fragmentation. We conclude the article with a proposal for an episte-
mology of consumption that subsumes scientific knowledge under a broader
of narrative knowledge and recognizes multivocality of consumption forms.
Consumer research has been experiencing a stim-
ulating period of self-study, debate, and rejuven-
ation in the last decade. One influential framework
within which the debates have been conducted is labeled
"modernism versus postmodernism" (Brown 1993;
Featherstone 1988; Firat 1990; Firat, Venkatesh, and
Sherry 1993/1994; Foster 1983; Hirschman and Hol-
brook 1992; Sherry 1991; Turner 1990; Venkatesh
1989). We have also seen ongoing debates in the various
social and behavioral science disciplines exploring al-
ternative epistemological positions based on postmod-
ern concepts. Examples include anthropology (Clifford
1988; Crapanzano 1991; Marcus and Fischer 1986),
cultural studies (Fiske 1989; Grossberg et al. 1992), ge-
ography and cultural spaces (Harvey 1989; Soja 1989),
psychology (Gergen 1991), and sociology (Lash 1991;
Turner 1990). Most of our taken-for-granted notions
related to the consumer, consumption, markets, and
consumer culture rest on certain cultural and philo-
sophical foundations that are found in the general his-
torical framework known as modernism (Lash 1991;
Ross 1988). Postmodernism has emerged not only as a
critique of modernism and its foundational domination
over established constructs in consumer culture, but,
in its own right, it also has emerged as a new philo-
sophical and cultural movement (Borgmann 1992;
Vattimo 1992). In this article, we propose to demon-
strate how postmodernism exposes the limitations of
modernism for the study of consumption and offers al-
ternative perspectives that have a liberatory potential.
Four pressing concerns motivate our thinking in this
article. The first concern is philosophical, exploring the
conceptualizations that would be appropriate regarding
our notions of the consumer and consumption in a
postmodern world. The second concern relates to the
development of appropriate epistemological positions
that fully capture the postmodern consumer and post-
modern consumption. The third concern is epochal and
emerges out of the realization that the world of con-
sumption is changing dramatically and new possibilities
are emerging that did not exist before. This expanded
scope pertains to the rise of ethnic consciousness, mul-
ticulturalism, and the global diffusion of consumer cul-
ture (Costa and Bamossy 1995; Penialoza 1994; Sherry
1995; Shultz, Belk, and Ger 1994; Venkatesh 1995) ac-
companied by the rapid growth of new technologies of
information and communication. Finally, the fourth
concern relates to the issue of how we might avoid the
reductionism of all consumption into a single logic,
namelv the market logic-
*A. Furat Firat is professor of marketing at Arizona State Univer-
sity, Phoenix, AZ 85069-7 100. Alladi Venkatesh is professor of mar-
keting at the Graduate School of Management, University of Cali-
fornia, Irvine, Irvine, CA 92717. We thank the associate editor, two
referees, and Nikhilesh Dholakia for their comments and suggestions
throughout the development of this article.
? 1995 by JOURNAL
RESEARCH, Inc. * Vol. 22 0 December 1995
All rights
The label "modernity" generally refers to the period
in Western history starting from the late sixteenth cen-
tury or early seventeenth century (Borgmann 1992, p.
22) up to the present. Modernity usually refers to the
time period, and "modernism" refers to the philosoph-
ical and sociocultural ideas and conditions marking this
period. Among other things, modernism signifies the
following conditions: (1) the rule of reason and the es-
tablishment of rational order; (2) the emergence of the
cognitive subject; (3) the rise of science and an emphasis
on material progress
through the application of scientific
technologies; (4) realism, representation, and the unity
of purpose in art and architecture; (5) the emergence
of industrial capitalism; and (6) the separation of the
sphere of production, which is institutionally controlled
and public, from the sphere of consumption, which is
domestic and private. Figure 1 shows a genealogical map
of the elements of the modern versus postmodern' de-
bates and the relevant postmodern ideas.
The recent historical evolution of the West is hailed
as a success story by many because of its scientific, tech-
nological, and material accomplishments (Cahoone
1988). Despite these accounts of success, postmodern
skepticism questions and criticizes modernism's claims
on philosophical, cultural, and empirical grounds. Ap-
pendix A identifies some of the core ideas of modernism
that are under attack by postmodernists. Postmodern-
ism offers a set of worldviews that distinguish it from
modernism. These worldviews are varied, yet carry
some common themes. In a distinction similar to the
distinction between modernity and, modernism, post-
modernity refers to the time period overlapping with
late modernity, and postmodernism refers to the cul-
tural conditions associated with postmodernity. We use
the term "associated" to emphasize that postmodern
conditions (designated by the label "postmodernism")
did not suddenly appear and in fact are known to have
existed during modernity (some of them even during
premodernity) but were not given conceptual recogni-
tion until recently.
Critique 1
Modernism, as a social/historical construction founded
in the principles of Enlightenment, has run its course
(Foucault 1984). In modernity, our notions of what con-
stitutes a modern individual or society have been guided
by particular historical forces-in this case, science, ra-
tionalism, and technology. Postmodernists point out that
what we see around us are not just the products of science
and technology, but the processes of cultural presence that
include aesthetics, language, discourses, and practices.
Our notions of consumers and producers, and con-
sumption and production are constituted as much by
these cultural processes as by economic forces. Post-
modernists argue that modernism has become narrow,
dogmatic, and unidimensional in its working philosophy.
Modernism, according to this critique, is unable to tap
into the richness of human experience, regards the social
order to be transparent, and deals with surface realities
and simple solutions (Vattimo 1992). Concurrently,
modernism has come to represent a limiting view of the
individual (or the consumer) as merely a cognitive agent.
By privileging science and technology over cultural and
symbolic representations, it has become suspicious of
pluralism looking askance at alternate or contradictory
viewpoints (Said 1979).
Critique 2
Simply put, the second critique states that modernism
has failed in its quest for an ethically ordered, rationally
constructed, technologically oriented, seemingly pro-
gressive, and relentlessly unifying social order (Rosenau
1992). It failed because the material progress it promised
has turned out to be illusory, and conditions of poverty,
human misery, and violence still mark our lives. The
modernist project has rendered the consumer a reluc-
tant participant in a rational economic system that af-
fords no emotional, symbolic, or spiritual relief to the
consumer (Angus 1989). In essence, modernism has
marginalized the "lifeworld" (Habermas 1984).2 The
postmodernist quest is therefore to "reenchant human
life" and to liberate the consumer from a repressive
rational/technological scheme.
Critique 3
Modernism reduces the world into simple dichoto-
mous categories: subject/object, male/female, producer/
consumer, culture/nature, signified/signifier, Occident/
Orient, and so on. Each pair represents a difference,
and usually the first term is given a superior status over
the second term. Postmodernism regards these dichot-
omies as unsuccessful historical attempts to legitimate
partial truths. Vattimo (1988) calls postmodernism a
movement toward reconfiguring the "philosophy of dif-
ference" that permeates the modernist dogma.
'A very
terminology to modernism/postmodernism
is structuralism/poststructuralism.
not synonymous, post-
and poststructuralism
have overlapping
meanings, but
histories. In the social sciences,
the preferred terms
are "modernism"
and "postmodernism"
than "structuralism"
and "poststructuralism." For
this reason
and to minimize
decided to use these two terms in the text (i.e., modernism
while acknowledging
that many postmodern
discussed in this article
can as easily be labeled
2"Lifeworld" is a term used in phenomenological
sociology and
refers to civic life and community
where the individual
can fitid
forms of action and
Critique 4
This is directed toward the paradoxical-if not out-
right inconsistent-character of modernism. It has to
do with the ideality and reality in our lives, where real
(imaginary) becomes imaginary (real), representation
becomes interpretation, substance becomes form, and
objects become images. Modernism, while incorporat-
ing uniqueness, actually produces conformity (Ross
1988). Thus, the paradox of modernism is the uncon-
nectedness of its ideality to its reality. Nowhere are the
paradoxes and inconsistencies of modernism more ev-
ident than in its consumer ethos. For instance, three
different views or discourses of the consumer persist in
modernity. According to the first view, which places
the consumer in opposition to the producer, the pro-
ducer creates value while the consumer destroys it. By
this account, consumption is a profane act, a devouring
act, for no value is produced by devouring. The second
view treats the consumer as a commodity, fetishized
object (Jhally 1987, chap. 2). In contrast to these un-
flattering views of the consumer, modernity has also
rendered the consumer "sovereign" through popular
marketing slogans, such as, "The consumer is king,"
and "The consumer is always right." What are we to
make of these paradoxical perspectives that simulta-
neously vilify and glorify the consumer? Postmodernism
exposes these contradictions and elevates consumption
to a level on par with production, where consuming is
also viewed as a value-producing activity.
Critique 5
In the field of art and architecture, modernist notions
were found to be very stifling and repressive because of
the primary emphasis on rationalism, functionalism,
and universalism (Jencks 1987). The postmodern
movement in these fields moved closer to expressive
forms, symbolic representations, and the mixing of the
genres. This liberatory transformation opened up
countless possibilities in the world of art and architec-
ture. Our own position (to be detailed later) reflects a
similar move.
Critique 6
A final critique can be found in feminist writings
(Bristor and Fischer 1993; Fraser and Nicholson 1990;
Joy and Venkatesh 1994). While early forms of fem-
inism represented a political movement toward equality
for women in a male-dominated world, more recent
feminist works appear to be attacks on modernism, as
they are grounded in Foucauldian views of power and
regimes of truth, Derrida's deconstructionism, and La-
canian psychoanalysis.3 (See App. B for brief discussions
of Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan.) Feminist attacks on
modernism argue that the Cartesian subject is ulti-
mately a philosophical construction of the masculine
subject under the guise of a more universally gendered
subject. That is, feminism takes its cue from decon-
structionism, which itself attacks the Cartesian for-
mulation of the centered subject. In other words, fem-
inism turns Derrida's critique of logocentrism into a
critique of phallocentrism (Jardine 1985). This feminist
critique of modernism tends to expose the modern con-
struction of the consumer-self as the mind separable
from the body, the individual separable from the social,
and the human subject in control over objects of her/
his creation. As the rest of this article explores, post-
modernism not only reveals the paradoxes in the mod-
ern construction of the consumer, but also proposes
radically different perspectives of what a consumer is.
The aforementioned critiques point to some of the
major differences between modernism and postmod-
ernism. Although there is a tendency to refer to post-
modernism as a unified body of knowledge, some writ-
ers note that perhaps it is more appropriate to use the
plural "postmodernisms," to signify that it refers to a
compilation of several themes with different origins or
starting points (Borgmann 1992; Rosenau 1992). We
have attempted in Figure 2 to illustrate this in a sche-
matic fashion. The main ideas or metanarratives of
modernism are at the center of the figure. Representing
postmodernism, we have constructed different percep-
tual positions based on the sources of these positions.
3Controversy exists as to how the feminists view the postmodernist
developments. There is some ambivalence in the reception of post-
modernist ideas by feminists. Fraser and Nicholson (1990) have ar-
gued that the postmodernist framework as represented in the work
of Lyotard (1984) is inadequate to deal with the issues raised by the
feminists. This is because, according to them, postmodernism is ba-
sically a philosophical critique that argues for the dissolution of
metanarratives, whereas feminism is a social and political movement
whose ideas are embodied to a great extent in the "social criticism"
of modernism. Accordingly, feminism questions both the cultural
practices of modernism and the underlying male ideology contained
in such practices. Feminism is unwilling to give up its position as a
metanarrative or an alternative metanarrative to male ideology and
risk marginalization. In spite of this criticism of postmodernism,
Fraser and Nicholson (1990) and Hekman (1990) find it necessary
to combine postmodernism with feminism because their ultimate
goals are the same, that is, to question the essentialism and founda-
tionalism of modernism. As Hekman states, "Feminists, like post-
modernists, attack Enlightenment epistemology, specifically its
rationalism and dualism [i.e., subject/object distinction]. ...
[However] they refuse to accept the argument that these dualisms
must be dissolved . . . [only that they be] reversed" (p. 5). The project
of feminism is essentially directed toward decentering both the subject
(i.e., the male as subject) and the object (i.e., the female as object),
the former from domination and the latter from the dominated po-
sition. Because feminist theory runs parallel to postmodernism, even
if it does not overlap with it, "postmodernist feminism" seems to be
a label that has received greater acceptance.
Lyotard) Philosophy
ORENAS Hcturalism F
/ Reason/Rationality\
d MrScience
/ Unified subject\
Truth Grand
Metaphysics Referentials
Philosophy &_
PI Universalism /F
ORIENTALIS Historicism/
Said) /KJrdisteva) ulr
(Derrida) ~~~~~~Marxism
Critical Theory
These different perspectives have tended to influence
each other over a period of time while maintaining their
own histories and central ideas.
Central to postmodernism are ideas of culture, lan-
guage, aesthetics, narratives, symbolic modes, and lit-
erary expressions and meanings. In modernism, these
are all considered secondary to economy, science, con-
crete objectifications, analytical constructs, essences, and
metaphorical representations. In terms of processes,
modernism is more interested in continuities, progres-
sions, stable order, and harmony. Postmodernism con-
siders these processes to be illusory and fictional and
argues that the micropractices of everyday life, discon-
tinuities, pluralities, chaos, instabilities, constant
changes, fluidities, and paradoxes better define the hu-
man condition. Nothing in the logic of human affairs
defines the categories privileged under modernity as nat-
ural or timeless. Postmodernism rejects rigid disciplinary
boundaries and is eclectic in thought and practice. In
terms of social and political theory, postmodernism ac-
cepts the possibility that several theories, which may or
may not agree with each other, can each have a legitimate
position in human discourse. In the economic sphere of
life, postmodernism considers both symbolic production
and consumption to be major areas of community par-
ticipation. As asserted by Soja (1989), the political econ-
omy of land as a factor of production has now been
replaced by a different discourse-the cultural economy
of space. Similarly, it includes multiple voices in its dis-
course based on gender, race, and colonial past.4 In
particular, it decenters the modern subject first by un-
masking it as a particular sociohistorical construction
based on Cartesian (and male) conception, and second,
by proposing alternative formulations. That is, instead
of looking at the human subject in mere cognitive terms,
postmodernism considers other possible profiles, such as
human beings as communicative subjects guided by lan-
guage as much as by rational thought. Postmodernist
4For similar reasons that define the affinity between postmodern-
ism/poststructuralism and feminism (see n. 3), the idea of "orien-
talism" (Said 1979) has been developed as a critique of modernism.
Here the dualism refers to the superior colonial position of the West
as the subject and the inferior colonized position of the East as the
object (see also Appadurai 1993). History tells us that the Western
colonization of the East blossomed with modernity.
ideas have gathered momentum in the information age
by pointing out the key role electronic communications
and technologies play in spectacularizing our realities.
Postmodernism is very much concerned with the aes-
theticization of contemporary culture and the cultural
signification of our contemporary lives. As Featherstone
(1988) argues,
the culture we live in may best be described
as a signifying culture.
In sum, postmodernists view all knowledge to be a con-
struction of one sort or another and the product of lan-
guage and discourse. Thus, for example, they contend
that there can be no such thing as transcendental signified
or transcendental truth (Derrida 1970), or ultimate truth
(Foucault 1980), or a metanarrative
(Lyotard 1984), or a
unilinear vision of history (Vattimo 1992). (See App. B
and C.) Postmodernists view many of the modernist nar-
ratives as time-bound cultural and historical construc-
tions. They question the universal and transcendental
to such categories
as reason, truth, science,
knowledge, rationalism, progress, and the like. Because
these categories are considered foundational to modern-
ism, the postmodernist critique appears
to attack the very
foundations of modernism and in the process has been
as being nihilistic, if not destructive.
This is, in fact, a central claim in Habermas's (1981) cri-
tique of postmodernism. We believe that the nihilistic
posture of postmodernism is more apparent than real, for
what postmodernism proposes is the construction of a
cultural and philosophical space that is both human and
sensible. Instead of universalism in thought and practice,
it offers localisms and particularisms. Instead of subject-
centered reason, it offers
experiences. In-
stead of single truth, it acknowledges regimes of truth.
Instead of science as the primary vehicle of knowledge, it
gives equal status to narratives,
discourses, subjective ac-
counts, and aesthetic concerns in the grounding of
knowledge. Instead of a teleological view of progress, it
conceptions of historical motion and action.
Finally, instead of metaphysical certainties, it proposes
contingencies. In sum, these several
themes are
offered as alternative visions of the world.
Celebratory Postmodernism
The celebratory or affirmative postmodernism com-
bines a critique of modernism with a rejoicing of its
end, especially the end of its grand schemes or metan-
arratives that once appeared to be timeless and un-
shakable. In anticipation of the impending dissolution
of these metanarratives, celebratory postmodernism has
welcomed localized narratives and the freedoms asso-
ciated with them (Vattimo 1988). Affirmative post-
modernism is a call to playfully, artfully, and un-
abashedly practice these conditions to reenchant human
lives rather than sacrifice them through commitments
to what postmodernists consider dead-end projects.
Critical Postmodernism
Critical or skeptical postmodernism, on the other
hand, does not consider these conditions with the same
enthusiasm. Rather, it is either ambivalent about the
meaning of these conditions (Baudrillard 1981, 1983)
or highly critical of their consequences for human so-
ciety, and therefore seeks to transcend them (Jameson
1984). Skeptical postmodernists dislike the negative
consequences of these conditions such as endless com-
mercialization and commodification, loss of commit-
ment to worthy causes, hedonism, and the general loss
of social compassion. Postmodernists who are highly
critical view the postmodern conditions as resulting di-
rectly from the excesses of modernism, or what Jameson
calls the conditions of "late capitalism." These critical
postmodernists also differ from others in terms of what
they see as the final solution. They do not suggest a
return to modernist metanarratives, because, in their
view, the postmodern conditions represent the culmi-
nation of these metanarratives. What they advocate is
a radical break from the culture of late capitalism and
a return to some sort of (unattainable?) moral utopi-
anism (Jameson 1984; Ziegler 1991).
Liberatory Postmodernism
Our own position is akin to, but differs from, the
approaches discussed above. We label our position
"liberatory postmodernism." We are closer to celebra-
tory postmodernists in their critiques of modernism and
believe in the liberating potentials of the postmodern
conditions and postmodernist ideas regarding discourse
and epistemology. We partially agree with Jencks
(1987)5 that postmodern conditions cannot be consid-
ered a break from modernism but a radical extension
and maturing of it.
We maintain that adopting a postmodernist position
does not mean denying the existence of postmodern
conditions in modernity. Rather, we argue that these
5With a background in architecture and art history, Jencks (1987)
labels postmodernism as the new social order, which is both the con-
tinuation of "modernism and its transcendence." The principle that
defines this new order is labeled by Jencks as "double coding." In
double coding, the elements of modernism are retained but their
meanings and symbolic properties are altered. The result is a simu-
lation of sorts. Jencks views postmodernism as an era of "incessant
choosing. . . in which all traditions seem to have some validity....
The challenge for postmodern Hamlet, confronted by an embarrass
de riches, is to choose and combine traditions selectively, to select
those aspects from the past and present which appear most relevant
to the job at hand. The resultant creation, if successful, will be a
striking synthesis of traditions; if unsuccessful, a smorgasbord" (p.
5). For a more updated version of Jencks's perspectives on postmod-
ernism see his introductory essay, "The Postmodern Agenda," in his
edited volume, The Postmodern Reader (Jencks 1992). While Jencks
views postmodernism and its possibilities in positive light because of
the many freedoms the development suggests, Jameson views these
more skeptically. Jameson (1983) calls these multiple perspectives
"pastiche," which signifies a juxtaposition of unrelated ideas, con-
sumer experiences, and historical moments.
conditions were suppressed by modernist metanarra-
tives. Consequently, liberatory postmodernism is a call
to practice unabashedly the conditions toward micro-
emancipatory ends-as opposed to grand emancipatory
projects. However, postmodernism's liberatory poten-
tial cannot yet be achieved. The reason for this delay
is the growing influence of the market-which is a
modern institution still operating according to the
commercial principles and criteria of the "economic"-
during the contemporary dissolution of other modern
institutions. Specifically, modern social and/or political
institutions have been under heavy attack from post-
modernist and other countermodern discourses, and
they have lost the confidence of their constituencies.
This further undermines their effectiveness in taking
care of society's affairs. The void created by their dis-
solution has been filled in largely by the market, which
has enjoyed relative freedom from direct criticism and
attack, perhaps because of perceptions that it is a me-
dium of profane, everyday interactions rather than a
platform of exalted discursive pursuits. Under contem-
porary conditions, the market has almost become the
sole locus of legitimation. This being the case, post-
modernism cannot realize its liberating potential with-
out challenging the current unilateral logic of the market
as it has challenged the discursive elements of modern-
ity. The consequences of this contemporary condition
will be revealed as our discussion progresses.
Dichotomies and Difference
Central to our analysis is a set of dichotomies that
stem from the modernist idea of difference (Derrida
1976). The first order of dichotomies refers to the
philosophic basis of the dichotomies: truth/nontruth,
objectivity/subjectivity, rational/experiential, mind/
body, structure (order)/organic, signified/signifier. The
second order of dichotomies may be called phenome-
nological or social constructivist: economy/culture,
production/consumption, value creation/value de-
struction, male/female. The third order may be loosely
called epistemological: science/art, rational/irrational,
functional/symbolic, universal/particular.
The first order of dichotomies helps us analyze the
notion of reality and the constitution of the human
subject (or the consumer). The postmodern critique en-
ables us to consider hyperreality to be a more plausible
version of reality, and it treats the human subject not
as a centered, unified subject, but as decentered and
fragmented. We relate the notion of fragmentation both
to our perception of reality and to our construction of
it. Using the second set of dichotomies, we begin the
next section with an analysis of the foundational prem-
ise of modern industrial capitalism that considers pro-
duction to be a value-creating activity and consumption
to be a value-destructive activity. The production/con-
sumption dichotomy is also mirrored in the economy/
culture dichotomy, which has similarly placed economy
over culture as a privileged realm of discourse. We also
posit that the production/consumption dichotomy is a
gendered distinction, as borne out by the historical por-
trayal of woman as consumer and man as producer-
the implications in the capitalist discourse being that
consumer (i.e., the feminine) does not produce socially
useful value but only consumes or destroys it. Finally,
if we were to view the "consumer" in postmodern terms,
the Cartesian subject on which our past images of the
consumer have been based must be replaced by a dif-
ferent conception.
Modernist Construction of the
Dichotomy and the
Beginnings of the
Postmodern Critique
Given that our task is to understand the development
of postmodern consumption, we must first examine
what consumption means in contemporary society or,
to use Foucauldian terminology, how consumption is
constructed in contemporary society.6 While human
beings have always engaged in consumption, the mod-
ern concept of consumption as separate from other
phenomena seems to be rooted in other separations:
the separation of home from workplace; the separation
of time for work (job) from time for play (recreation,
leisure); the separation of activities into public and pri-
vate domains. With these separations has come the sep-
aration of consumption from production. Increasingly,
activities in the private domain-that is, at home, dur-
ing play-have come to be considered consumptive,
and production is relegated to the public domain-the
factory, the office, the workplace.
Consumption was regarded as secondary to produc-
tion. It did not create anything of significant (i.e., eco-
nomic) value for society or humanity. (See Table 1 for
a modernistic distinction between production and con-
sumption as value-creating and value-destructive ac-
tivities, respectively.) Consumption was only to replen-
ish the individual to carry out the really important,
meaningful, productive-thus valuable-activities in
the public domain. Production was creation, because
it added something of value to human lives, and thus
it was considered a sacred activity (Polanyi 1977; Saffioti
1978). As such, the modern definitions of consumption
and production, as well as their distinction, depend
6It is especially important for us to understand the meanings of
consumption in capitalist society because capitalism is clearly the
most enduring and defining form of modern social order. Further-
more, as is well explained in Mandel (1987, esp. chaps. 3 and 12)
and also in Featherstone (1991), capitalism entered into an especially
cozy relationship with consumer culture first with industrial produc-
tion and next with therapeutically sanctioned consumption. For an
interpretivist and experiential view of consumption and its multi-
dimensional aspects in everyday life, see Holt (1995).
Object of Passive Productive Mechanism Transformational
production objects act factors act Output
Production as value
Food Raw Manufacturing process Human labor, capital, Manufacturtng process Useable product leads
material, land, technology and marketing to consumption
Comment Privileged status in Privileged status in Creation of value
society, special society, special
social skills/ social skills/
knowledge required knowledge required
Object of Passive Consumptive Transformational
consumption object act Mechanism act Output Renewable
Consumption as value
Food Any edible Eat, drink Human body Digest Human waste By natural processes
Clothes Dress Wear Human body Wear out Rags, old Hand-me-down or give
clothes away to poor
Furniture Chair Sit Human body Use/wear out Old furniture Give away to poor or
make an antique
Transportation Car Drive Human body Use/wear out Junk Give away to poor or
make an antique
Comment Low status, no Low status, no Destruction of
special skills special skills value
required required
solely on the meaning of value. If the community of
definers sees the outcome of a process or set of activities
as something of value, then production has taken place.
Otherwise, the activity is a profane act of consumption:
pure use, devouring, and destruction.
As studied elsewhere (Firat 1987; Firat and Dholakia
1982), creative activity at home has been supplanted
increasingly by products bought in the market, and en-
terprising activity in the private domain has waned and
now consists of following the instructions and standards
for using these products. Consistently, activities histor-
ically performed at home, such as gardening, cooking
and baking, knitting and weaving, and the like, dimin-
ished and were replaced by finished products such as
silk plants, canned foods, frozen dinners, packaged
bread, and ready-made clothing (Hartmann 1974). In
a sense, creative labor at home has quietly surrendered
its power to "productive" labor in the public domain.
The transfer of labor power from the home to the
public domain, however, has not always meant equality
in the transfer of people (specifically, women-the oc-
cupants of the private domain) from the private domain
to the public. The transfer has been in terms of abstract
labor, not of concrete labor (Hartmann 1974). The ac-
tual history of this transfer has been much more com-
plex, of course, with women and children initially being
pulled into the factories as cheap labor during the in-
dustrial revolution and then being returned to the home
as "pure" consumers, their labor in the workforce being
replaced by machines and male workers. The co-op-
tation of family wages and other labor demands for
benefits into the industrialists' political agenda seems
to have had much to do with the growing necessity for
mass consumers to broaden the market for the expand-
ing production under a "regime of accumulation"
(Harvey 1989).
Growth of Consumer Society
At the same time that the separation of production
and consumption was conceived in economic terms, a
parallel body of knowledge examining consumption as
a sociocultural process was beginning to appear. Camp-
bell (1987, p. 5) contends that "consumer revolution
forms the necessary analog to industrial revolution."
McKendrick, Brewer, and Plumb (1982) provide a de-
tailed account of what they call the "emergence of con-
sumer society." Similarly, Marchand (1985) analyzes
the growth of consumerism, in the American context,
as a market-aided cultural transformation. According
to these accounts, the growth of the consumer society
was triggered by four major moves: (1) the separation
of the private and public domains (i.e., the identification
of consumption with the private [home] domain and
production with the public domain); (2) the construc-
tion of the consumer society through various public
discourses and practices and by media initiatives; (3)
the assignment of men to the domain of production
and of women to the private domain to be in charge of
consumption-related activities (i.e., the conversion of
women into consumers within the capitalist market
process); and (4) the conversion of consumers into
shoppers by the use of marketing techniques.
A point that needs to be made is that modernity gave
birth to the consumer society in much the same way
that it produced the industrial society. The writings of
historians show that the notion of the modern consumer
with culturally oriented tastes and aspirations was a so-
cial construction of the modern era. In order to make
full sense of these developments, we invoke the Fou-
cauldian framework to demonstrate that the consumer
was not discovered by market processes but rather was
constructed by them. Campbell (1987), Jhally (1987),
and Marchand (1985) have shown that this construction
was made possible through a variety of factors: con-
sumers living a life of rising expectations, the relentless
activism of marketing and advertising in creating new
wants and needs that did not exist before, and the es-
tablishment of a new identity for the modern subject
in the form of consumer.
To quote Hartmann (1974) in this regard, "Business
literature indicates that many business leaders believed
it was necessary to increase people's desire to buy and
ability to purchase, both of which they saw as a prereq-
uisite for a consumption-oriented society. Through ad-
vertising, shorter work hours, higher wages and install-
ment credit, they sought to create 'a consuming family'
to supersede 'a working family' of the nineteenth cen-
tury . . . within the 'consuming family' the job of set-
ting the consumption standard and purchasing the new
products fell to women" (pp. 330-332). Thus, the rhet-
oric of the market overlaps with the expanding role of
women in the consumption process.
Women, forced back into the private domain through
the social policies of the industrialized Western econ-
omies, represented their culture's ideal image of "the
consumer," the consummate shopper (Galbraith 1973;
Gerstein 1973). In such a role, women lived extremely
perplexing lives and were confronted with paradoxical
rhetoric and behaviors. Postmodernist claims of the
paradox in modern life are easily supported by scruti-
nizing the conditions of women in the private domain.
First of all, the so-called private domain was not private
at all. Rather, the practices in and the products of the
public domain largely determined life and relationships
in the private domain, in terms of political-legal out-
comes and products for consumer markets. Neither
were women's lives private, because women were, in
many respects, the private property of men. All "assets"
in the household belonged to its male head (Saffioti
1978), and a woman could do little without the man's
permission (Chodorow 1979). At the same time, public
rhetoric contained much praise and flattering of women.
Mothers, especially, were put on pedestals for raising
stout sons and for looking after the needs of men.
This contradiction in rhetoric and economy has pro-
duced much paradoxical indoctrination of women.
They have been given contradicting signals regarding
what they ought to be, how they should look, and, more
recently, the images they shoula represent. To a large
extent, this seems to be an inevitable part of being a
modern consumer.
Feminist Critique
The feminist critique of consumption arising out of
a reaction to these various developments covers a wide
spectrum of issues as exemplified in some recent pub-
lications. Some of them contest the epistemological po-
sitions of existing consumer research (Bristor and
Fischer 1993; Hirschman 1993), while others employ
feminist theory to deconstruct consumer images gen-
erated through advertising (Artz and Venkatesh 1991;
Stern 1993). There is also much original work outside
the traditional consumer research, for example, Kap-
lan's (1987) work on male voyeurism and gaze in MTV,
and Bordo's (1993) critique of the representation of the
female body in contemporary consumer culture.
In light of the recent social transformation of gender
roles, the consumption consequences of women's
choices regarding their work and home lives have be-
come quite profound. Women are no longer tied to their
homes as in the past and now can choose to stay in
marriage or not rather than being forced by social dic-
tate. Freedom in the social arena has transferred to the
marketplace, which now recognizes the wisdom of
treating women as postsuburban consumers of change
instead of passive suburban housewives. Furthermore,
more recent interpretations of the constitution and or-
ganization of "families" have been aided by postmodern
cultural tolerances and recognition of differences (Wes-
ton 1991). This includes tolerance for same-sex par-
enthood, homosexual couples, and out-of-wedlock
households. These interpretations challenge and trans-
form traditional modern family gender roles and struc-
tures, thereby introducing profound changes in the sig-
nifications of the consumer and consumption.
Culture, which originally signified all that was not
nature, that is, all that was humanly constructed, be-
came separated into its components as modernity pro-
gressed. At the epistemological level, the separation
yielded the distinct spheres of science, art, and morality,
each with its own norms and internal logic (Foster 1983;
Habermas 1981). The sphere of science was assigned
the norms of reason and truth, and the purity of science
became a condition for maintaining social progress. At
the institutional level, similar separation resulted in the
creation of the three spheres of economy, society, and
polity. The idea was that with each sphere operating
through its own norms or guiding principles, modernity
would work more rationally. The economy, with its
norms of resource efficiency, took center stage, becom-
ing the engine of modern society, because the most im-
portant goal of the modern project was to improve hu-
man lives, particularly by providing more and better
products through scientific technologies.
It is understandable, therefore, that even the most
radical modernist critiques of modern systems-for ex-
ample, Marxist critiques of capitalism and liberal (mar-
ket-oriented) critiques of collectivism-were essentially
economic critiques. Furthermore, the principal focus
of these critiques was to deconstruct the system(s) of
production, and they hardly ever problematized con-
The postmodern critique, on the other hand, is much
more penetrating because it adopts a cultural position
rather than a purely economic one. For example, it
contends that the advent of the economy becoming so
central and dominant in modernity was itself a cultural
moment; that is, a modern narrative was rendered
"real" with everyone treating it as if it were the "truth."
There is no doubt that culture has become a contested
terrain under postmodernism. It must, however, be
noted that the notion of culture is not new to human
sciences; anthropologists have been studying compar-
ative cultural systems for a long time. As Rabinow
(1986) and Marcus and Fischer (1986) have noted, the
historical role of anthropologists in the study of cultures
has been to view them from a distance, to represent
cultures as realistically and objectively as possible
through observation and ethnography. It was Geertz
(1973) who first introduced the idea that cultures are
not represented as much as interpreted. However, as
Rabinow (1986) observes, Geertz is still in the positivist
or modernist mode, for interpretivism does not auto-
matically become nonpositivist or postmodernist, just
as the philosophical basis of culture as an observed real-
ity does not change just because it is interpreted. It was
therefore left to writers like Marcus and Fischer (1986),
Rabinow (1986), Clifford (Clifford and Marcus 1986),
and Strathern (1987) to contest the traditional ap-
proaches to the study of culture by problematizing the
very idea of culture itself as an observable (not merely
observed) reality. In the last decade or so, the field of
anthropology has experienced a profound critical turn,
but the very idea of cultural critique is not anthropo-
logical in its origin. The critique was already initiated
by the members of the Frankfurt School (see Hetrick
and Lazada [1994]; Murray and Ozanne [1991] for re-
views) with further rupture taking place in the writings
of Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, and other poststructur-
alists and postmodernists.
Modern and Late Modern Phase
One of the first thinkers to examine the relationship
between consumption and culture was Simmel ([1900]
1978, [1903] 1971), who argued that consumption cul-
tivated individuals by allowing them to attach their own
meanings to and act upon the objects in their world.
Consumption determined many consumers' values and
experiences regarding life and being. Simmel was par-
ticularly impressed by the emergence of the modern
metropolis and cultural economy of the city. He argued
that a new identity of the consumer was being estab-
lished as a result of cultural urbanization.
Taking us back into an earlier time period in history,
Agnew (1986) finds some similarities between the con-
temporary landscape of consumption and the markets
of the early Renaissance period. In an analysis of social
and economic practices in England between 1550 and
1750, Agnew shows how the intersection of "commer-
ciality" and "theatricality" became the focal point of
cultural discourse during the period. He introduces the
"market" as a vibrant clash of culturally mediated sen-
sibilities and historical images that make the market
appear more like a theater than a timeless, context-free
site of economic exchange. To Agnew, "commerce" and
"theater" are complementary terms, and his description
of the market economy avers that it was always replete
with meanings and cultural images. In fact, Agnew re-
jects, very specifically, the dichotomy of market and
culture; he brings "the culture theory" down to the level
of the so-called price system. Similarly, he attempts to
raise economic thinking from unbridled reductionism
to "higher" levels of cultural discourse.
More recently, the idea of the culture of consumption
as a framework within which consumer behaviors can
be studied and understood has been put forth forcefully
by Douglas and Isherwood (1979): "The individual hu-
man being, stripped of his humanity, is of no use as a
conceptual base from which to make a picture of human
society. No human exists except steeped in the culture
of his time and place. The falsely abstracted individual
has been sadly misleading to Western Political Thought.
But now we can start again at a point where major
streams of thought converge, at the other end, at the
making of culture. Cultural analysis sees the whole tap-
estry as a whole, the picture and the weaving process,
before attending to the individual threads" (p. 63).
Douglas and Isherwood go on to show how in various
domains of consumption, such as food, clothing, and
various other goods, activities become highly symbolic
acts that are invested with meanings derived from cul-
tural frameworks. Goods become means of conveying
messages among individuals and groups of individuals.
A similar idea is also to be found in contemporary con-
sumer research, especially in the works of Levy ( 1981 )
and McCracken (1988; see App. D).
Marcuse (1956) had earlier argued from a Marxist
position that consumerism was a product of capitalism,
a system in which producers created false needs and
exploited consumers. Barthes (1972) further proble-
matized the whole notion of false and true needs by
arguing that what was missing in this analysis was the
symbolic code of consumption. He maintained that
there was a dual aspect to consumption-first, it fulfills
a need, and second, it is also embedded within the social,
cultural, and symbolic structures. The function of con-
sumer goods satisfying material needs cannot be sepa-
rated from the symbolic meanings of commodities, or
what Barthes calls "significations." Consumption for
Barthes is embedded within systems of signification, of
making and maintaining distinctions.
Bourdieu (1984) takes the structures of signification
to new dimensions. In his book Distinction, he provides
a comprehensive framework for the symbolic processes
in consumption. He contends that social "reality" is
constructed for human beings through structurations
that are crucially determined by the economic that, in
turn, has to be mediated by the symbolic. As a result
of structuration, then, consumer tastes develop that are
determined socially, not privately. Bourdieu appears to
be both a structuralist and a poststructuralist in his
analysis. He states that consumption takes place within
the social structures. In this sense the element of social
class is key to the formation of tastes. However, the
social class characteristics are not merely determined
by the usual demographics but are also based on what
Bourdieu calls the "habitus," the set of practices ap-
propriate to the differential groups. These tastes, as
much constructed by consumption experiences as by
the economic condition, reflect and represent a sym-
bolic hierarchy that further determines consumption
choices. The symbolic hierarchy is based on what Bour-
dieu calls symbolic power, which is derived from the
different types of capital people possess. Countering the
conventional wisdom that sees capital only in economic
terms, Bourdieu identifies four kinds of capital: eco-
nomic, cultural, educational, and symbolic. These sys-
tems of capital give power to people to determine how
tastes are developed within social groups. Bourdieu ar-
gues that what confers distinction on people is the no-
tion of difference-resonating a Derridean idea. That
is, distinction through symbolic differentiation is what
underlies the cultural system.
Finally, for Bourdieu, while the social structure is the
site of consumption, it is not a determinant of specific
consumption practices and the symbolic aspects of
consumption. In other words, structures may provide
positions, but not necessarily the symbolic codes or
meanings. Bourdieu argues that structures do not ac-
count for all symbolic activities. For example, people
in lower social groupings may emulate those at higher
echelons by adopting their codes, and vice versa. While
Bourdieu's work has defied traditional classification,
either in terms of structuralism/poststructuralism or
modernism/postmodernism, Lash (199 1)7 views Bour-
dieu as a postmodernist, contrary to some other claims
(see Wacquant 1989, p. 27 and n. 8).
Once we acknowledge the role of culture and the
symbolic modes, practices, and behaviors as the basis
of understanding consumption, we have to look for
cultural spaces where such practices occur. Instead of
evaluating cultural practices as part of a metanarrative
or of a grand scheme of social behavior, we need to turn
to everyday life as the site for expressions of cultural
symbolism. The idea of everyday practices as guiding
themes of life can be found in the writings of postmod-
ern thinkers. For instance, Foucault (1977) refers to
micropractices of normalization as possible sources of
insights, Lyotard (1984) discounts metanarratives as too
troublesome and opts for local narratives, and feminists
prefer to examine the practices of discrimination in ev-
eryday life, while Bourdieu (1984) looks to tastes and
behaviors as everyday significations.
In sum, the writings of Douglas, Barthes, Bourdieu,
and others lead us to an important postmodern con-
clusion that culture and economics are closely linked;
material production and cultural configurations go sol-
idly hand-in-hand (Angus and Jhally 1989; Ross 1988).
In addition, aesthetics and economics interact dialect-
ically to produce the aesthetics of commodity form and
the commodification of the aesthetic subject. There is
a simultaneous reification of aesthetics and economics
into a single cultural form that becomes the essence of
the consumer society (Baudrillard 1975). For example,
artistic works that rebel against economic domination
are themselves converted into economic objects and
brought into the world of commodification, which the
artistic work was created to oppose in the first place.
This is an example of commodification of a critique in
which the critique is rendered incapable of standing on
a footing equal to and opposing its original target of
attack. If the critique cannot be reappropriated suc-
cessfully by the market economy, then it is marginal-
ized. Thus, there are only two possibilities for cultural
critique in a modern market: reappropriation or mar-
ginalization. There is no way for the critique to mediate
between the dominant and dominated, for it is always
and already dealt with by the dominant mode.
Postmodern Phase
It is the exposing of these possibilities and those be-
yond marketization that identify postmodernism as
7Here is the relevant quote from Lash (1991, p. 254): "Bourdieu's
position on these matters is a far cry from Habermas's universalistic
modernism. It is instead much closer to the postmodern-type power/
knowledge assumptions of Foucault."
both a critique and a celebration. In other words, the
logic of production (order, coherence, and systematic
and scientific thinking) is no longer the criterion by
which consumption is evaluated, nor is it necessary for
consumption.8 The process of consumption, therefore,
is liberatory, paradoxically combining both the "real"
and the imaginary; in it, one can consume objects,
symbols, and images, increasingly recognized to be one
and the same. The only requirement in modernism is
that consumption take place within the (capitalist)
market logic, that is, through the exchange of money
for goods and services or with money itself as an ex-
changeable commodity. However, as the tight reins of
the modern metanarratives on social consciousness be-
come looser and a postmodern sensibility waxes, the
perceived dependency on products and their claimed
universal and unique functions, utilities, and values
wanes. The understanding that no object has any in-
herent function or value independent of the symbolic
gains greater acceptance, and the illusory separations
between the real and the simulation, the material and
the imaginary, the product and the image dissolve. This
dissolution enables the consumer to actively engage in
the aesthetics of life experiences. On the other hand, it
also propels the marketer to spectacularize the living
environments. It becomes clear that the Disney World
fantasy is no more a fantasy than the suburban com--
munities or the metropolitan cities where we are im-
pelled to conduct our everyday lives. A McDonald's
hamburger is no more or less a simulation of a home-
made hamburger, adapted to fast-food production re-
quirements, than the hamburger we cook at home is a
simulation of a Big Mac; but Big Mac has now become
the image of a hamburger around the world. In fact,
they all become simulations of one sort or another, some
more fantastic than others and more spectacular, but
all (ready to beome) a spectacle, nevertheless. With this
growing awareness, as the consumption sector turns
more and more toward the consumption of images, the
society at large becomes more and more a society of
spectacle. The best articulation of the society as spec-
tacle, and of the relationship between production and
consumption within the context of the spectacle (which
Baudrillard [1983] calls the hyperreal), is contained in
the following passage by Debord ([1967] 1983):
The spectacle, grasped
in its totality, is both the result
and the project
of the existing mode of production.
It is
not a supplement
to the real world,
an additional deco-
It is the heart of the unrealism of the real
In all its specific forms, as information
or propaganda,
as advertisement or direct entertainment
the spectacle
is the present
model of socially dominant
life. It is the omnipresent affirmation
of the choice
made in production
and its corollary consumption.
form and content are
the total
tification of the existing system's
conditions and goals.
The spectacle
is also the permanent
of this jus-
since it occupies
the main part
of the time lived
outside of modern
(Chap. 1, par. 6, p. 3)
The age of postmodernism may truly be called the
age of the symbol and spectacle. Vattimo (1992) has
argued that the new technologies of information and
communication permit spectacularizations that have
not been possible before, leading to what he calls "the
fabling of the world" (p. 24). Appadurai (1990) has
shown that the spectacularization of consumer culture
knows no national boundaries but has become clearly
global. Living the spectacle reinforces the dominance
of consumption over production. In postmodernism,
production is considered neither the most meaningful
8There is some confusion about the connection between Marxism
and postmodernism (see the special issue of Socialist Review [ 1991
for a clarification). The Marxist attack on capitalism is sometimes
misinterpreted as being similar to the postmodernist critique of mod-
ernism. But this is not necessarily the case, for Marxist critique is
located within the modernist framework. This is especially true of
orthodox Marxists whose primary preoccupation is with the economy
(as opposed to culture) and production (as opposed to consumption),
and with the social relations of production. This changes with the
Frankfurt School, whose intellectual roots can be traced to early Marx
and whose main target is the "culture industry" albeit within the
context of the mode of production. Postmodernism is concerned with
the aestheticization of life and in the symbolic processes that are
marginalized in the traditional Marxian analysis. Marxism dismisses
culture as "superstructure" while maintaining that economy and
economic relationships constitute the "base." Besides its preoccu-
pation with the economic foundations of production, the philosoph-
ical basis of Marxism is very much anchored in modern Western
metaphysics. Marxism rests on the Cartesian notion of the subject
and the dichotomy of the subject-object split. Marxism has very little
to offer to the issues of gender exploitation in the economy except in
very broad terms where every type of exploitation needs to be viewed
through the prism of class domination under capitalist production.
Marxism does not envision capitalism in gendered terms at all.
Whereas Marxism is concerned with the political economy of the
signified (the object) as the product of industrial capitalism, it is the
signifier that is given greater attention under postmodernism. Under
postmodernism, the signified (the object) is now replaced by the sig-
nifier (the symbol) as the site of cultural debate. Marxism is also very
modernist in the sense that it regards "truth" as the final resting place
of all knowledge and scientific inquiry. The only problem Marxists
see in this regard is that the production and scientific processes as-
sociated with the discovery of truth are in the hands of capitalists,
but they should rightly belong to the worker. For postmodernists,
truth is a social construction and is not subject to class interpretation.
Postmodernism rejects Marxism as a metanarrative. Marxists are
preoccupied with economic capital, whereas postmodernists identify
different forms of capital-economic, symbolic, cultural, and edu-
cational. For postmodernists, culture is the very essence of human
life, for it is through language (Derrida), methods of normalization
(Foucault), mass media (Vattimo), and aesthetic narratives (Lyotard)
that we negotiate our daily lives and patterns of existence. To sum-
marize, postmodernism is concerned with the issues of construction
of the modern subject, the distinction between object and symbol,
the idea of truth as construction, the notion of spectacularization of
life, the creation of the hyperreal, the cultural signification and aes-
thetization of life, the role of language and communication forms as
opposed to cognitive forms, and the primacy of consumption over
production, or, more accurately, with the effacement of the difference
between production and consumption.
activity nor the domain of creation of value as it was
in modernism. Postmodernism "has displaced the locus
of analysis from the domain of production to the realm
of consumption" (Mourrain 1989). Consumption is the
moment in the process where symbolic exchanges that
determine and reproduce the social code occur, where
"there is an active appropriation of signs, not the simple
destruction of an object" (Poster 1975, p. 6). The im-
plication of this reversal in postmodernism is that con-
sumption is not the end, but a moment where much is
created and produced. It is not a personal, private act
of destruction by the consumer, but a very social act
wherein symbolic meanings, social codes, political ide-
ologies, and relationships are produced and reproduced
(Breen 1993). Postmodernist insights lead us to con-
clude that production never ceases, that it is a continual
process, that at every moment of consumption some-
thing is produced: an object, the person, or in general,
the signifier, the image, and the symbol. The production
of the symbol becomes a spectacular activity. Symbols
have no particular origins and can be manipulated via
a system of signs. In this process, the consumer becomes
a consumer of symbol/spectacle, for that is how objects
are presented to her/him. In this symbolic/spectacular
universe, at a time when the market rules, consumers
look for meanings and experiences while marketers
produce the spectacles.
As mentioned earlier, Debord (1983) describes con-
temporary society as the society of the spectacle, a realm
in which everything is removed from real experience
and becomes an inverted representation of itself. The
spectacle circumscribes reality, and any experience or
discourse that arises within it becomes a spectacle. In
the contemporary market, ordinary gestures and the
activities of daily life are prepackaged as glamorous and
seductive; commodities come complete with preor-
dained roles and lifestyles; even dissent and critique are
commodified and sold to those who experience and
produce them. In Debord's words, therefore, "Reality
rises up within the spectacle, and only the spectacle is
real" (chap. 1, par. 8, p. 4).
Baudrillard (1983) extended Debord's thesis by ar-
guing that there can be no possibility of critical discourse
if the spectacle is all-encompassing. Baudrillard, there-
fore, has come up with the notion of hyperreality and
called it "more real than reality itself" (Baudrillard
1983, p. 147). He means that one can always come up
with a better version of whatever one regards as reality
(i.e., a social construction), and that constitutes the basic
ontology of our contemporary society.
To Baudrillard (1981), the society of the spectacle
has become the society of signification, and "an object
is not an object of consumption unless it is released
from its psychic determinations as a symbol, from its
functional determinations as an instrument, from its
commercial determinations as a product; and is thus
liberated as a sign to be captured by the formal logic of
fashion, i.e., by the logic of differentiation" (p. 67).
Moving beyond the Marxian analysis of exchange value,
he sees all human relationships as grounded in the sign
value. The world is neither representational nor ma-
terial, but purely symbolic. It is more than symbolic-
it is significatory. The consumer-object becomes a code
or a signifier, and a free-floating one at that, for mean-
ings change through a logic of fashion or differentiation.
While we agree with Baudrillard that the current
consumption scene is embedded in the cultural econ-
omy of the sign, we do not subscribe to his pessimistic
conclusion that the consumer loses her/his sense of
identity and purpose in the aura of the spectacle. On
the other hand, as Harvey (1989, pp. 288-291) has
shown, postmodernism creates arenas of consumption
that are fluid and nontotalizing, which means that con-
sumers are free to engage in multiple experiences with-
out making commitments to any. It is not to brands
that consumers will be loyal, but to images and symbols,
especially to images and symbols that they produce
while they consume. Because these symbols keep shift-
ing, consumer loyalties cannot be fixed. In such a case,
a modernist might argue that the consumers are fickle-
which perhaps says more about the modernist intoler-
ance of uncertainty-while the postmodernist inter-
pretation would be that consumers respond strategically
by making themselves unpredictable. The consumer
finds his/her liberatory potential in subverting the mar-
ket rather than being seduced by it.
The notion of representation is already fundamental
in modernist thought. The original meaning of repre-
sentation was the capturing or comprehending of "ob-
jective reality" through direct observation, artistic
transformation (e.g., painting, photography), or scien-
tific modeling. Scott (1994a) calls this "mimetic" rep-
resentation, which dates back to the period of classical
Greece and was later reformulated during the Renais-
sance through the development of the "rules of per-
spective." In postmodernism, representation has also
come to mean the construction of the real as played
through the human imagination without reference to
objective reality. This means that intervention into
reality is possible not only by the application of tech-
nology but also by other forms of human control. The
construction of reality, therefore, suggests that reality
is not always treated as a given but is subject to manip-
ulation for aesthetic or commercial purposes. Such a
notion of representation lies at the heart of the post-
modern market culture, as witnessed in the design of
products and packaging (Meamber 1995), in the cre-
ation of spectacular shopping environments and other
private and public commercial spaces (Belk and Bryce
1993; Harvey 1989), and even in the (re)making of the
human body (Joy and Venkatesh 1994). The postmod-
ern imaginary tends to liberate this process of repre-
Reversal of production Juxtaposition of
Hyperreality Fragmentation and consumption Decentered subject opposites
Reality as part of Consumption experiences Postmodernism is basically The following modernist notions Pastiche as the
symbolic world and are multiple, disjointed a culture of of the subject are called underlying principle of
constructed rather Human subject has a consumption, while into question: juxtaposition
than given divided self modernism represents a Human subject as a self- Consumption experiences
Signifier/signified Terms such as "authentic culture of production knowing, independent are not meant to
(structure) replaced self" and "centered Abandonment of the agent reconcile differences
by the notion of connections" are notion that production Human subject as a cognitive and paradoxes but to
endless signifiers questionable creates value while subject allow them to exist
The emergence of Lack of commitment to consumption destroys it Human subject as a unified freely
symbolic and the any (central) theme Sign value replaces subject Acknowledges that
spectacle as the Abandonment of history, exchange value as the Postmodernist notions of fragmentation, rather
basis of reality origin, and context basis of consumption human subject: than unification, is the
The idea that marketing Marketing is an activity Consumer paradox: Human subject is historically basis of consumption
is constantly involved that fragments Consumers are active and culturally constructed
in the creation of consumption signs and producers of symbols Language, not cognition, is
more real than real environments and and signs of the basis for subjectivity
The blurring of the reconfigures them consumption, as Instead of a cognitive
distinction between through style and marketers are subject, we have a
real and nonreal fashion Consumers are also communicative subject
Fragmentation as the objects in the Authentic self is displaced by
basis for the creation marketing process, made-up self
of body culture while products Rejection of modernist
become active agents subject as a male subject
sentation from the current control of marketing orga-
nizations, allowing the individual consumers to
participate in the process. Expressed in a different way,
postmodern consumption is a movement toward the
deconstruction of the marketing organization, its cap-
illarization, that is, its diffusion into the hands of each
and every consumer. In this universe of the symbolic
and the spectacle, the sensational plays a role as im-
portant as the role of the rational. The omnipotence of
the sensational, along with the rational, is powerfully
evidenced in the role that the spectacle and the simu-
lation play in the construction of social reality. (See
Exhibit 1 for a chart of postmodern conditions and their
main themes.)
According to Vattimo (1992), we live in a world that
is a continuous making of the present, especially
through electronic media. What is experienced mo-
mentarily becomes the real, and the construction of this
condition and its intensification constitute the hyper-
real. An aspect of hyperreality (Baudrillard 1983; Eco
1986) is the inclination or willingness among members
of the culture to realize, construct, and live the simu-
lation. A simulation can also be described as a chain of
endless significations wherein a signifier is replaced by
another signifier in a continuous play (Derrida 1970).
When these simulations capture the imagination of a
community, its members begin to behave in ways that
authenticate the simulation so that it becomes the social
reality of the community. Examples abound, as in the
case of the thematization of urban centers (Soja 1989)
and the growth of cultural technologies (Berland 1992).
There are many ways in which the consumer society
exhibits its enthusiastic involvement in such simula-
tions: tourists in droves visit the IMAX theater next to
the Grand Canyon to watch it on film to "really expe-
rience it"; visitors to Las Vegas become absorbed in the
experience of the simulated volcano in front of the Mi-
rage Hotel or the "Forum" at Caesar's Palace that sim-
ulates a Roman marketplace; theme and simulation
parks, such as Fossil Rim in Texas that recreates an
African Safari, induce great excitement in their visitors.
There is also widespread "Disneyfication" and/or the-
matization of all urban and suburban experience, from
the shopping malls to town centers. All of these devel-
opments require technologies of simulation, and we
continue to locate new possibilities in the new tech-
nologies of information and communication.
The images, sensations, and ideas (re)presented or
evoked in and through these simulations seldom, if ever,
follow a linear logic. Most often, they are disjointed-
as in music videos (Kaplan 1987)-and lack a unified
meaning or center. On the other hand, no one can claim
that they do not conjure meanings or emotional and
cognitive reactions. These meanings and reactions are
just as often disjointed and disconnected, yet they leave
the human being with a sense of encounter that com-
poses and constitutes her/his experience of life (and
reality). These meanings and reactions seep into our
senses and impact our reason; they impress themselves
upon us. It is the effort on the part of modernists-their
attempt to reduce all this richness and complexity to
the singular dimension of reason, a linear logic-that
the postmodernists repudiate and find disenchanting.
Thus, the postmodernist purpose is to find enchantment
in life. Therefore, the movement has originally and
continually been aesthetic and cultural (Foster 1983).
One development that is closely related to hyperreal
condition is the emergence of cyberculture. This rep-
resents a major social transformation brought about by
the technologies of computers, information, and tele-
communications, which are referred to as postmodern
technologies by some key thinkers (Lanham 1993; Pos-
ter 1990, 1995; Vattimo 1992). As Escobar (1994, p.
213) reminds us, "Cyberculture is in fact fostering a
fresh reformulation of the question of modernity in
ways no longer mediated by (conventional) literary and
epistemological considerations." While modernist
technologies were viewed basically as machines of pro-
duction and in instrumental terms, postmodern tech-
nologies are viewed as communication tools that permit
movement in cyberspaces, virtual realities, and com-
puter-mediated environments. Poster (1995) refers to
these developments as creating new forms of identities
and new symbols of communication and consumption.
In his earlier work (Poster 1990), he identified them
collectively as "the mode of information," as opposed
to the "mode of production" (the paradigm of mo-
dernity). The postmodern nature of the new technol-
ogies becomes apparent as one sees in them the inten-
sification of the hyperreal, the unraveling of power
hierarchies (e.g., via the internet), the reempowerment
of the consumer, and the fragmentation of cultural and
social spaces. Granted that the full implications of these
developments have not been understood and that we
are forced to engage in speculative modes of thought,
it is nevertheless important to acknowledge the various
discursive practices associated with the experiences of
these new technologies.9
Today, the dominance of marketing and advertising
over everyday life may be viewed as a culture in itself:
the marketing culture. Marketing culture is defined as
the systematic creation of cultural forms through the
actions of marketing and advertising. Goldman and
Sapson ( 1994) call this a culture of "hypersignification."
The key to the dominance of marketing culture, to use
Derridean terminology, is the transformation of the
commodity from a natural thing into a linguistic sign.
Several observers of contemporary culture have ex-
pressed that advertising has become the prevailing form
of public discourse (e.g., Ewen 1988; Miller 1988; Moy-
ers 1989). The fact that the sign is now marketed, rather
than the thing, yields a curious result: because signs
cannot wear out in the way things do, contemporary
culture is characterized by an endless reappropriation
and recontextualization of past signs. Postmodern cul-
ture, in this sense, is fashion-the continuous rehabil-
itation of images, styles, and tropes (Barthes 1983;
Faurschou 1987). It is in the realm of consumption,
therefore, that such rehabilitation takes place and where
signs-more important, the meanings of signs-are
produced, reproduced, manipulated, reconstructed,
appropriated, and discarded (Leary 1968).
In this greater attention to the symbolic and the spec-
tacle-the multidimensionality and multilayeredness of
the collages of images that determine human sensibility
and sensitivity beyond reason-there is a fragmentation
of life, experience, society, and, most important, of the
metanarratives (Lyotard 1992; Wilson 1989). Such
fragmentation is not necessarily viewed negatively in
postmodernist thought. After all, fragmentation of the
metanarrative allows the liberation and acceptance of
indifferences, as well as putting an end to the dominance
of any one "regime of truth." Fragmentation means,
literally, the breaking up into parts and erasing of the
whole, single reality into multiple realities, all claiming
legitimacy, and all decoupling any link to the presumed
whole. With the increasing role that consumption plays
in human lives, fragmentation now pervades all activ-
ities. The fragmentation in communications is of much
significance, the reason being that signification and
representation, both largely communicative processes,
determine and transform reality. The individual is freed
from seeking or conforming to one sense or experience
of being; the disenchantment from having to find con-
sistent reason in every act, in every moment, is tran-
scended, and the liberty to live each moment to its full-
est emotional peak, for the experience, for the
excitement of the senses, for the pleasure, is regained,
even when each moment, each spectacle, does not con-
nect into a logical, centered, unified meaning. Thus, we
have the emergence of the fragmented subject, a subject
whose multilayered existence seeks neither repressive
unity nor conformity but freedom of movement in an
expansive space.
With the end of metanarratives due to fragmentation,
and with the freedom to live in fluid spaces, comes the
end of pretension to commitments. All is represented
as a bricolage (Newman 1986) of recontextualized,
multilayered, and multimeaning images. In this world
of shifting images, there is no single project, and no one
lifestyle, no one sense of being to which the individual
needs to commit. Furthermore, the postmodernist is
well aware of the incongruousness and disillusionment
associated with modernist projects that promised much
"progress" yet produced only disenchantment. The
postmodernist is willing to live the fragmented moments
and the thrill of the spectacle without committing to
any one moment. S/he is content to live with the par-
adoxes that may arise from the fragmentation, the free
9Limitations of space do not permit us to expand on the nature of
cyberculture and virtual communities, but readers are referred to
some recent electronic essays (see, e.g., Curtis and Nichols 1994; Ser-
nentelli 1994).
juxtapositions of objects (therefore, even of opposites)
in the bricolage. Yet, in its current state, the market
still adheres to modern criteria while awaiting a post-
modern deconstruction (Siuerdem 1994). As we ex-
pressed earlier, it constantly regulates the consumers'
desires and intents to signify and represent rejection or
repulsion of the dominant culture or, constructively,
for a new vision. It manages this through resilient co-
optation of the countercultural expressions into the
mainstream culture, as items for the commercial mar-
ket, by emptying these expressions (and symbols) of
their initial meanings.
Decentering the Subject
The idea of the subject is at the heart of postmodern
thinking. The fragmented subject, discussed earlier,
represents a state of destabilization of the Cartesian
unified subject. Destabilization also means decentering
of the subject from its privileged position. For Derrida
(1976), the deconstruction of Western metaphysics
cannot be accomplished without decentering the human
subject from such a position. Similarly, for Foucault,
there can be no transcendental subject, but only an ev-
eryday subject, that is, a subject who is very much a
product and part of the discourses and practices in
which s/he is embedded. Being embedded should not
be confused with being centered. Postmodernist per-
spective on the decentered subject can best be described
by a quote from Fiske (1989):
The classic theories of subjectivity
(whether social or
stress the resolution of contradictory
forces in favor of the dominant:
they explain the con-
of social subjectivity
in terms of the victory
the dominant forces.
Their outcome is, inevitably,
a rel-
single subject,
or subject
in ideology.
theories, however,
stress the disunited,
tory subject,
in which the social struggle
is ongoing, in
which the contradictory subject
positions sit sometimes
uncomfortably, sometimes relatively comfortably, to-
gether. (P. 180)
Recognition dawns that the centering of the subject
and her/his position of control over her/his own ends
and life were always suspect or could never be realized.
Postmodernists neither seek nor buy into the necessity
of centering the subject. The subject is just another
modernist narrative, just another story constructed and
then committed to. In postmodernism, the individual
is freed from having to be, have, or seek a center, freed
from another commitment imposed by modernist
metanarratives. Given the suspicion that the subject was
never the center or in control, and coupled with the
intention to free the subject (oneself) from commit-
ment, postmodernism embraces the confusion (or the
fusion) between the subject and the object. As a matter
of fact, examples from modern society abound wherein
the object is in control of the human being, once con-
structed and culturally signified. Thus, the object (the
product consumed) can set the parameters and the rules
of the consumption process (Firat 1987; Firat and Dho-
lakia 1982).
Recent work on consumer possessions (Belk 1988)
and the application of object relations theory in con-
sumer research have added some new dimensions to
our understanding of how consumers relate to objects
and objects relate to consumers (Sherry 1986, 1993,
1995). Postmodern subjectivity problematizes this re-
lationship as consumers increasingly have come to be
acted upon by objects. The products have begun to de-
termine the process and procedures of consumption ac-
tivity, with consumers merely following product in-
structions. Failure to follow instructions can and often
does have adverse, sometimes fatal, consequences. More
and more, in an ironic twist of social ordering, individ-
uals, as economic actors, are defined by their role that
aids the market in achieving its economic goals, rather
than the market and its products being the instruments
of consumer welfare. Products of the market become
active agents, as in the case of television that has re-
organized human lives and relationships, or as declared
in many an advertising copy (e.g., "Coty makes it last").
This argument is developed in very interesting ways by
Appadurai (1986), who argues that objects have lives,
not in the psychophysical sense, but in the imputed
sense of cultural fetishism. In a similar fashion, Sherry
(1995, p. 31) talks about the centrality of phenome-
nological relationship between the consumer and the
object that leads to "the production of consumption."
Reversal of Production and Consumption
In this process of merging the subject and the object,
another myth in the modernist ideology is exposed:
there is no natural distinction between consumption
and production; they are one and the same, occurring
simultaneously. Each act of production is also an act
of consumption, and vice versa, that is, there is a cycle
of production and consumption. During the moment
that is called consumption in modern (economic) lit-
erature, the products are acting on the individual to
produce a certain type of human being. Different con-
sumption patterns produce different mentalities. In
modern society, the human being thus produced is one
who is ready, able, and willing to be commodified and
objectified, to be consumed by the system, which needs
it as labor power. Postmodern sensibility does not op-
pose this condition, but removes the stigma that modern
thought would attach to such objectification since the
issue in postmodernism is not to dwell on oppositional,
binary categories, such as object/subject, but to liberate
the construction of all from imposed narratives and
Juxtaposition of the Opposites
Once the opposition between subject and object is
dissolved, they can be mutually represented and jux-
taposed at all times. Opposing and disconnected jux-
tapositions are found increasingly in contemporary
culture, as in architecture where the modernist, uni-
versalist requirements of technical and functional effi-
ciencies have been abandoned (Jencks 1987). It is now
possible to juxtapose rococo, Roman, modern, and
Greek architectural features in one building. The pur-
pose is to consummate artistic or aesthetic pleasure by
abandoning the received rules in architecture. Libera-
tion from commitment and necessity of centered con-
nections, and a tolerance for juxtaposition of anything
with anything else, allow for abutting opposites. This
new ''architecture" of all consumers' surroundings,
from thematized shopping malls to the forms and sights
of the city (Gottdiener and Lagopoulos 1986; Kling,
Olin and Poster 1991; Soja 1989), also contributes to
the redefinition of the conditions for consumption.
"Postmodernism refuses to privilege any one per-
spective, and recognizes only difference, never inequal-
ity, only fragments, never conflict" (Wilson 1989, p.
209). This is largely the consequence of the juxtaposi-
tion of contradictory emotions and cognitions regarding
perspectives, commitments, ideas, and things in general.
Anything is at once acceptable and suspect. On the one
hand, this "very imprecision of the concepts of post-
modernism and the postmodern is exciting, even lib-
erating" (Wilson 1989, p. 208). On the other hand, jux-
taposition of opposites, when it becomes a dominating
orientation toward anything, tends to create total irony,
ambiguity, and finally, pastiche (Bouchet 1994; Jame-
son 1983).
The postmodern conditions that best describe the
consumer are fragmentation and decenteredness. We
demonstrated earlier that the fragmented subject is also
a decentered subject. Fragmentation does not mean that
the consumer is resorting to some sort of nihilism or
occupying an inferior social or personal space (Gergen
1991). We consider fragmentation an emancipatory re-
sponse to the totalizing logic of the market. The post-
modern consumer attempts to restructure his/her iden-
tities in the face of overpowering market forces. As
Patricia Waugh (1992, p. 123) reminded us, fragmen-
tation is an "onslaught on the bondage of thought to
regulative ideals such as 'unity' and 'truth."' Fragmen-
tation and decentering constitute moves toward greater
emancipation. As various theorists (Lacoue-Labarthe
1990; Nancy 1991; Vattimo 1988) have pointed out,
modernity conceives of emancipation in linear, evo-
lutionary, and progressive historical terms, only to en-
snare the individual in binary oppositions and repressive
uniformities. Similarly, conventional views of the con-
sumer are couched in terms of hierarchy of needs, bi-
nary decision-rrmaking processes (yes/no, go/no go, etc.),
choice and choicelessness, all of which are claimed to
rest on the ostensible autonomy of the consumer but
are, in fact, totalizing concepts. Postmodernism permits
us to conceive of the individual as engaging in nonlin-
earities of thought and practice, in improbable behav-
iors, contingencies, and discontinuities (Gergen 1991).
It is in this regard that postmodernism begins to locate
the consumer in emancipated spaces. We also view the
consumer in a decentered context or within the context
of everyday life and practices instead of trying to ex-
amine the consumer under the lens of grandiose or uni-
fying theories. That is, the picture of the postmodern
consumer that is most plausible is the view presented
to us by Bourdieu (1984) in terms of his "habitus," or
what Fiske (I1992) calls the culture of everyday life.
We see the unfolding of fragmentation in real life in
many interesting ways because of the contemporary life-
styles. Even within families, as the number of cars, tele-
vision sets, microwave dinners, and so on, multiply,
the family members find options that did not exist be-
fore. Each individual consumer-each family mem-
ber-can watch a different television program (which,
recently has been causing major problems for Nielsen
ratings), eat prepackaged meals according to individual
tastes and schedules, and jog along his/her own pre-
ferred route listening to his/her own music choices on
his/her own Walkman. To represent the variety of dif-
ferent images sought, each private consumer engages
in multiple consumption experiences.
To say that fragmentation leads to an emancipatory
position for the consumer is not to deny that the market
continues to exploit the notion of fragmentation in its
treatment of the consumer. In a period of largely mod-
ern production systems and postmodern consumer
sensibilities, the consumers frequently find themselves
in a dilemma, and most experience some level of stress.
Anxiety becomes one of the major motivators of con-
sumption (Bouchet 1991). The cartoon in Figure 3 il-
lustrates this point much more vividly than words can.
To quote Goldman and Sapson (1994) in this regard:
"Advertisers perfected the art of depicting self in terms
of constituent body parts, fetishising each body part so
it corresponded to appropriate commodities. Typically,
advertising fetishism was defined by linear editing prac-
tices that set up assumptions of causality between prop-
erly commodified body parts and desirable social out-
comes" (p. 36).
Given a system that centralizes (in large corporations)
the "'production" of objects, in the search to present an
individual image, the consumer ends up, paradoxically,
in the position of buying and consuming more of the
same products (cars, television sets, designer clothing)
that millions of others buy, only to wind up in limbo,
never committed to one special image, product, or life-
style, and always experiencing conflicting emotions and
cognitions (such as hating being a "couch potato" while
enjoying watching television). Left with the role of the
voyeur (as in watching television), the consumer is in-
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creasingly passive, being the presence necessary, so to
speak, for the product to perform a function.
Indeed, in all its roles, the market itself is highly frag-
mented. Each product in the market is the star as it is
presented (e.g., in advertising) and purchased, frag-
mented from all others. Consequently, in the super-
market, for example, you do not find the ingredients
for an omelet all together. The eggs, salt, onions, and
cheese are all in different departments. These depart-
ments do not bring ingredients of a meal together;
rather, they bring together different brands of the same
ingredient, making each consumption item stand on its
own, removed from its companions in the preparation
of a dish. This simple example generally holds true in
other cases, such as clothing items and household du-
rables. This indicates the potential autonomy of each
product, the rather increased specialization that each
product represents, having its own singular purpose,
doing its own specialized task.
Yet, a product is also autonomous of its use. As we
expressed earlier, there is no natural link between a
product and its use. Rather, the link is cultural and
arbitrary. Imagine, for example, the uses to which a
mixer could be put by a child who is not yet acculturated
into the system of a kitchen. It is questionable whether
even an adult who has never seen a mixer nor had ex-
perience in a Western kitchen would be able to guess
the purpose ascribed in this culture to a mixer. Artists
recognized this freedom of objects from their use as
early as shop window designers began juxtaposing in-
dependent objects in shop windows to create "specta-
cles." Thus, utilitarian objects, such as toilet seats, meat
grinders, and sewing machines, were signified (attached
or imbued with meanings) beyond their utility; on the
canvases of painters, in sculptured pieces, each product
of industrial production became an icon in its own right
(Varnedoe and Gopnik 1990).
The fragmentation, reinforced by the autonomy of
products from each other and their initially designated
functions, has contributed to another process which ex-
tended and expanded the market. The growing substi-
tution of household creative activity by products of so-
cially organized production almost necessarily led to
greater specialization of products. It has been hard to
provide the market with products that have multiple
uses, especially when these products are mass-produced
and have to satisfy different consumer segments. A re-
frigeration unit or a washing machine, for example, can
be manufactured with only a single function in mind.
The paradox here is that the culture limits the use of a
produced object that is, in fact, independent of its use.
This cultural limitation or specialization is not adverse,
of course, to the growth of the market needed by the
industrialized mass-production in the public domain.
The fact is that the more specialized each product, the
more products a consumer must buy to do different
tasks, thus the greater the potential for market expan-
sion. The developments in culture, evolving structures
in consumption, and the necessities of market growth
have been "surprisingly" consistent and complimen-
But this is not postmodern consumption. It is con-
sumption stimulated by the postmodern conditions that
were always already present in modernity-but that are
now increasingly liberated thanks to the waning of
modern ideologies and the waxing of postmodern cul-
ture-caught in the contemporary primacy of the mar-
ket. As the hegemony of the market decreases and the
postmodern culture gains ground, consumers, as pro-
ducers of their self-images and (hyper)realities, will find
a new freedom that is partially possible to predict and
partially yet to be discovered.
From our previous analysis in this article of post-
modern developments, we believe it is clear that we
need to rethink our conceptualizations of consumption
and the consumer. In this regard, we continue what has
Modernism Postmodernism
Philosophical system Reality (single) Hyperreality
Constructed realities
Realities as paradoxes and contradictions
Logocentric reason Hermeneutic reason
Knowledge (essentialism) Knowledge (multivocality)
Truth (objective) Truth (constructed)
Regimes of truth
Mind Mind and body
Universalism Localism, particularism
Reality cognitively comprehended Lived reality or realities
Consumption system Production Consumption
Consumer as consumer Consumer as consumer and producer
Consumption system as economic system Consumption as symbolic system
Consumer research as distance/objective knowledge Consumer research as constructive knowledge
Economy Culture and cultural economy
Shift from use value to exchange value Shift from exchange value to sign value
Subject/consumer Cartesian subject Symbolic subject
Cognitive subject Communicative subject
Unified subject Fragmented subject
Centered subject Decentered subject
Totalized subject Liberated subject
Signification system Representation Signification
Objectification Symbolism
Science Science/language/myth/humanism
been set in motion earlier by Sherry (1991). In sug-
gesting a possible epistemology, we make no claim that
it is a definitive epistemology of postmodern consump-
tion but seek to explore the possibilities.
In developing our ideas we are closer to the spirit of
the epistemological debates that have preceded us in
some other disciplines. For example, in anthropology,
the works of Appadurai (1990), Clifford (1988), Fox
(1991), and Marcus and Fischer (1986) clearly point to
some serious concerns about the traditional notions of
subjectivity and identity, and of scientific writing and
interpretation; the relationship between the researcher
and the researched; and the global dynamics between
the East and the West. In sociology, the epistemological
concerns have been expressed in phrases such as "the
end of sociological theory and the postmodern hope,"
"postmodern story telling versus pragmatic truth seek-
ing," and "postmodern anxiety and the politics of epis-
temology" (Antonio 1991; Lash 1991; Seidman 1991).
We encounter similar debates in cultural studies
(Grossberg et al. 1992) and organizational studies (Bur-
rell and Morgan 1979; Clegg 1994). These and other
discussions reflect the insular nature of various social
science disciplines and a certain discomfort in clinging
to the modernist paradigm.
Systems for Exploration
We have delineated four areas for exploration: (1)
the philosophical system, (2) the consumption system,
(3) the idea of the subject/consumer, and (4) the sig-
nification system. Under each area of inquiry we have
identified several categories. These categories should not
be considered exhaustive, but they do represent the
themes we have touched on in this article.
To aid us in this project, we have developed a scheme
that is shown in Table 2. The two columns of the table
represent the categories under modernism and post-
modernism. Instead of detailing each category, we pro-
vide a general discussion of the contents of the table.
In reference to the philosophical system, we reiterate
that the postmodern conception of reality is not in terms
of how reality is cognitively comprehended or repre-
sented. It is a lived or phenomenological, experienced
reality (or realities) that is constructed or virtual (De-
leuze 1994). We also see reality as a system of signs
(Derrida 1970). Clearly, postmodernism favors the idea
of hyperreality that follows from the argument that
reality is not something out there but something that
more often than not is created.'0 The notion of hyper-
real is intended to distinguish it from the modernist
notion of reality as uncontested and singular. Similarly,
truth is regarded as a construction (Foucault 1977). In-
"0The notion that reality is a construction has been argued before
and is not unique to postmodern discourse. For a phenomenological
perspective on the social construction of reality, see Berger and
Luckmann ( 1966). For a more positivistic view of reality construction,
see Herbert Simon's The Sciences of the Artificial (1972).
stead of a generalized notion of universalism, the post-
modern conceptualization of truth accommodates lo-
calisms and particularisms that may indeed stand in
contradiction to each other. This immediately raises
the issue that we cannot have a single or unified theory
of consumption, so we need perhaps several theories of
consumption. This means that as consumer researchers
we have to recognize that consumer processes may not
be the same across cultural and subcultural groups both
as empirical reality and theoretical possibility. As con-
sumer researchers, we must resist the temptation of de-
veloping overarching theories of consumption processes
that ignore localisms and particularisms based on phe-
nomenological experiences. In an earlier article, we had
proposed a new paradigm, which was labeled "ethno-
consumerism," to deal with alternate modes of thinking
about local consumption practices (Venkatesh 1995).
Market efficiency arguments run counter to everyday
experiences of consumers, for market power recedes in
the face of such accommodation. The critical con-
sciousness of postmodern thinking impels us to situate
ourselves in the phenomenological realm of microcon-
sumption practices of everyday life rather than em-
bracing theories based on universalism and reduction-
ism. Phenomenological studies have already been
initiated by consumer researchers through existential
contexts (Thompson, Locander, and Pollio 1989), con-
sumption experiences (Arnould and Price 1993), pos-
sessions and object relations (Belk 1988; Sherry 1993,
1995), critical hermeneutics (Hudson and Ozanne
1988), and reader-response issues (Scott 1994b). What
we propose is to extend them into a postmodern frame-
The philosophical system also considers that one of
the severe limitations of modernism is that it pays ex-
clusive attention to the "mind" and completely disre-
gards the "body." The body represents an important
locus of human knowledge and discourse, and this locus
is particularly critical to the epistemology of consump-
tion (Bordo 1993; Joy and Venkatesh 1994). To ignore
the body in any discourse on consumption is to accept
a very restrictive view of social reality.
Our next concern is with the consumption system.
The shift from production to consumption is the defin-
ing mode of our contemporary life and of postmodern
discourse. This does not mean that production is ig-
nored, but we must try to establish a discourse in which
both production and consumption are problematized
simultaneously. Our position is that the modern sepa-
ration between production and consumption must end.
The limiting nature of such a separation becomes evi-
dent once it is understood that production-of the body
and/or the mind of the consumer, as well as her/his
self-image' '-takes place in every act of consumption,
and therefore, the modern separation of consumption
and production was based on an arbitrary
and singularly
expedient specifically, for the welfare of a market
economy-concept of value. We need to base our in-
quiries on a multiplicity of moments in an ongoing cycle
of production and consumption, rather than on a bi-
polar opposition between the two concepts that is clearly
a modernist tendency. The consumer should now be
viewed as a producer, as well as a consumer, of symbols
and meanings that are incorporated into the symbolic
system, which all human activity has become. Unlike
in modernism, which views the consumer as a cognitive
agent, we propose viewing the consumer as a commu-
nicative, symbolic being. Finally, our focus is on ev-
eryday practices of the consumer and how s/he nego-
tiates his/her cultural spaces in an ongoing basis
(Bourdieu 1984).
Modernism views the consumer and consumption
solely in terms of the market logic. Current consumer
research, on the other hand, has to ask the question,
Can consumption take place without the perennial
presence of the market? The modernist approach that
places consumption in opposition to production has
practically ignored consumption except as part of the
logic of the market. As long as the consumer is viewed
as being located solely within the market, the liberatory
potential of the consumer cannot be fully realized. It is
therefore necessary to identify a social space beyond
the reach of the market by positioning the consumer in
the "lifeworld" and outside the market system. This is
one of the ways the postmodern consumer can suc-
cessfully distance himself/herself from the logic and
presence of the market system. The recent work of in-
terpretivists in consumer research clearly shows that
much consumption does take place outside the market
system-in swap meets, flea markets, family reunions,
and other social situations (Belk 199 1; Joy 1991; Sherry
1983, 199 1; Wallendorf and Arnould 199 1). True
emancipation of the consumer can materialize if s/he
were able to move in these social spaces without the
perennial panopticon of the market. (For an engaging
discussion on "Breaking the Tyranny of the Market,"
see Bellah et al. [1991].)
In a Foucauldian sense, we also propose that the dis-
courses of the consumption system be extended to in-
clude the producers of consumer research. We say this
advisedly, because the notion of an individual consumer
is as much a construction of the social system as it is a
product of the knowledge system that claims to study
consumers objectively from a distance, but is, in fact,
constructing her/him from this imaginary distance. In
other words, we, as consumer researchers, construct the
"While the production of the consumer in and through consump-
tion is of central interest to us, clearly consumption produces other
outputs, such as living patterns, community relations (e.g., neigh-
borhoods), and environmental conditions (e.g., pollution, waste, en-
dangered species).
consumer in much the same way as the contemporary
market system determines what s/he is.
Clearly, much of past consumer research has pro-
duced fruitful insights into the human dimensions of
the consumer, and indeed much of present consumer
research continues to do so. Postmodern sensibility, as
we have articulated throughout this article, does not
reject these insights or declare them to be false. On the
contrary, postmodern discourse recognizes these con-
tributions as indicative of the perspectives taken and,
therefore, constituting partial terrains that have dis-
covered the conditions, cognitions, decisions, and feel-
ings experienced by consumers. Both the quality (na-
ture) and the meaning of the insights gained-and those
that go undiscovered-will depend, according to post-
modernism, on the cultures that construct them: the
general culture of the society at large, and the culture
of the community that signifies and directs inquiry-
which, under modernity, is the scientific community.
Postmodernism reinforces the recognition that in and
through their inquiry, not only do scholars discover
facts, theories, and representations, but they also con-
struct them. Accordingly, consumer researchers have,
as scientists approaching their "subjects" with certain
perspectives, contributed to the reflections or images
and, therefore, to the existential realities of being a con-
sumer in the modern world. No single probe into the
lives of consumers can provide a complete picture of
the actual consumer and, certainly, never a complete
picture of the potential consumer. Yet, if and when
each "discovery" is received with belief in its validity
and expectations of its confirmation, especially by a
community that can be powerful in its representations,
these discoveries tend to mold and construct the con-
sumer in their own image.
This recognition of hyperreality is likely to produce
the greatest impact of postmodernism on future (sci-
entific) consumer research. It will force a broadening
of the boundaries of "scientific" research by forcing
greater acceptance of different perspectives and meth-
ods, thereby changing the nature of science. It will also
force a change in the stature of "scientific" research,
from a role of being the norm against which all other
philosophies, methods, and perspectives are measured,
to a role as an alternative means of generating knowl-
edge. From a postmodern point of view, this is not a
weakening of science but a potential reinvigoration of
it due to the necessity of making itself appreciated and
sought in view of competitive knowledge structures.
Science has always been a language of persuasive com-
munication, but it managed to lose its rigor and its cre-
ative, socially beneficial position when it was burdened
with expectations of producing the only acceptable and
meaningful truths.
Another concern is the subject (i.e., the consumer)
herself/himself. It has been argued that under modern-
ism the subject is too regimented because the definitions
used in the construction of the subject are very restric-
tive (cognitive, unified, centered, and totalized). The
true liberation of the subject comes from opening up
multiple possibilities of experience and creating these
possibilities as a way of making the subject both malle-
able and adaptive. Accordingly, our conception of the
consumer must move away from rigid formulations to
more fluid formulations. We have thus identified the
subject in terms of categories such as one who is de-
centered, communicative, fragmented, liberated, and
symbolic. In other words, the subject makes sense of
the world in terms of symbols, meanings, and experi-
ences, as opposed to an unmediated encounter with ob-
jects and ideal forms. This is the reason why we propose
the consumption environment as a signification system.
The signification system requires us to deal with dis-
courses that extend beyond sciences to the world of
narratives, myths, and symbolic regimes. We need,
therefore, to produce knowledge that is regarded as le-
gitimate, not merely because it is scientific but because
it has worthwhile literary and narrative qualities as well.
As we have already indicated, we must conceptualize
realities not in terms of objective realities but as virtual
and imaginary realities created by new forms of tech-
nologies and discourses (see Solomon and Englis [ 1994]
for an interesting development of this idea in the field
of advertising).
In terms of how the object is perceived, we replace
the notion of the object with the notion of a generalized
symbol. The elimination of the object does not mean
that there is no empirical object, for empiricalness is
not the issue here-construction is. Our conceptual-
ization of the object therefore needs to be in terms of
the symbol rather than concrete form. Consequently,
our focus is on the symbols that objects themselves have
become, in one way or another. This is the crux of post-
modernism and of our analysis of postmodern con-
sumption as symbolic activity.
In concluding the article, we wish to suggest possible
avenues that consumer research could take, given the
insights regarding the contemporary transformations
illuminated by postmodern discourse. Probably the
most substantive consumer research implication is that
the consumer is a constant producer, not only in the
realm of public spaces (offices, factories, production
lines) during work, but also in the moments signified
as consumption in modern discourse. The idea that the
consumer is at the end of a process, exemplified by terms
such as the "end consumer," therefore needs to be de-
bunked. The consumer needs to be studied as a partic-
ipant in an ongoing, never-ending process of construc-
tion that includes a multiplicity of moments where
things (most importantly as symbols) are consumed,
produced, signified, represented, allocated, distributed,
and circulated. Given that each and every one of these
moments is present in every act of construction, they
should not be used as independent, separate phenomena
to be studied, but as perspectives that may be useful in
articulating insights into the multiplex moments. Scott
(1994b) has provided a very insightful example of how
it is possible to view the consumer as a consumer of
ads not in the conventional sense of a conscious decision
maker preparing to purchase a product but as a reader
consuming a text.
In modern discourse, where the individual consumer
was considered to be at the end of a process, and con-
sumption to be the end, consumption was necessarily
conceptualized as a need-driven activity. The knowing
subject gained awareness of his/her needs as a cognitive
agent, using science to learn about her/his needs, which
were dictated largely by her/his nature. Consumption,
therefore, was a naturally guided activity. The nature
of needs, which reflected human nature, provided the
standards for the maintenance of human life in, again,
a naturally dignified manner. Typically, the human in-
dividual was considered to have superior life goals, to
be achieved through productive/creative or spiritual
activities, not through consumption. Consumption was
viewed almost as a "necessary evil" to physically and
psychologically maintain the individual so that s/he
could have the energy to attain the higher goals
of life.
It seems no longer possible to uphold such concep-
tualizations because, as realized by many students of
contemporary life, the individual consumer is not
driven by needs dictated by her/his own nature, but by
the organization of the system of objects. Through con-
sumption, the consumer is produced. Postmodernism
is a call to make each willing consumer an equal par-
ticipant in the determination of this production (con-
struction) of self, as well as in all production-symbolic
construction by the myths, narratives, and simulations
that result from signification and representation pro-
cesses. Deconstruction and reconstruction of the mod-
ern (i.e., capitalist) market in the image of the diversity
and multiplicity of the political, social, artistic, and
other discursive fields will be evidence that this call is
indeed being heeded. Such deconstruction and recon-
struction will begin when postmodern discourse, which
has always been preoccupied with describing the market
and its major practice, marketing, becomes critical of
the market's philosophical and operational logic.
This means that we do not study the consumer as
someone seeking to satisfy an end (needs), but as some-
one seeking to produce (construct) symbols. The indi-
vidual consumer's demand, therefore, needs to be
judged and studied similar to derived demand, as in
the case of organizational (business) consumption, be-
cause the consumer is a producer and what s/he chooses
to consume is for the purpose of producing something
(e.g., self-image, lifestyle, attractive personality, expert
labor, a healthy environment). The idea that consump-
tion merely maintains, sustains, replenishes, or satisfies
is no longer a viable one, especially given the recent
social consciousness about the relationships between
consumption and ecological balances or between con-
sumption and personal attributes, such as health, ad-
diction, and competence.
An important result of this recognition is the issue
of how much control the consumer has over his/her
own construction. We have to understand, for example,
the purposes that the postmodern consumer has and
the methods s/he uses in customizing herself/himself
as a meaningful entity, therefore, attaining the power
to seduce and signify, create her/his own simulations
to articulate his/her own visions of life. We must also
understand the constraints or limitations facing the
consumer in such articulation. Greater attention needs
to be paid to consumption being used as a means to
register rebellion (by women, by the young) by those
who otherwise do not have the means to express and
signify their discontents and visions of a different "real-
ity'' (Breen 1993). Paradoxically, such studies will pro-
vide the basis for a political agenda of consumer re-
searchers, which intends to differentiate consumer
research from marketing, by making the consumers the
actors for whom information is developed instead of
the objects or targets of study-to be explored in order
to develop information for those who will market to
consumers. Also paradoxically, this postmodern ap-
proach will help consumers in gaining the status of
being in control of (or at least effective participants
in) the construction of their world-a status promised
but not delivered in modernity. Consumer research
will thus become an enterprise in the service of con-
We can no longer view the consumer as a unified
subject. First, we recognize that the consumer lives in
a world of contradictions of his/her own making. The
postmodern consumer is not attempting to reconcile
these contradictions to produce a unified experience,
but, more likely, s/he lives these contradictions as an
existential condition. The idea that the consumer is
pursuing a goal of unification to make sense of this ex-
istence can be traced to the modernist notion that the
individual is a unified subject. We cannot study the
consumer as a self-contained object of scientific study,
as the modernist discourse would advocate.
We therefore ask the consumer researchers who are
steeped in the methods of cognitive psychology and in-
formation processing and in mathematical choice
modeling to come out of their protective shells, to set
themselves free from unidimensional conceptions of
scientific discourse and engage in postmodern recon-
ceptualizations. We do not advocate the abandonment
of "scientific" procedures, for nothing in postmodern-
ism suggests such a move. Postmodernism simply argues
that "scientific" knowledge is not the only knowledge
and that science should not relentlessly pursue universal
knowledge. Translated into the field of consumer re-
search, it means that we must opt for multiple theories
of consumer behavior rather than a single theory that
silences all other theories. In addition, we should expand
the notion of what a theory is to accommodate different
kinds of conjectures and not get bogged down in the
correspondence theory of truth. There can never be the
answer to a question. Besides, scientific argument
should combine with narrative discourse to produce a
richer texture of our knowledge base regarding con-
sumer and consumption processes. Consumer experi-
ences are too complex to be boxed into a single exper-
imental moment, and the joys of doing research must
be found not in the pursuit of a holy grail of singular
knowledge but in capturing many exploratory mo-
ments. Postmodernism is not postscience, only post-
universal science.
Given that gender has played a most important role
in the significations of the consumer and consumption,
to fully understand consumption, gender must be made
a central subject of study. An awareness of the changes
that significations of gender are going through now,
given the postmodern trends, will help us understand
future changes in the constitution of the consumer, and
thereby the changing meanings of consumption. Of
special interest is the break between the categories of
gender (feminine/masculine) and sex (female/male). Its
consequences give rise to the following crucial question:
What meanings will evolve for consumption, and what
motivations will guide consumption when the modern
significations of the feminine and the masculine are no
longer in effect and when both males