Steps Toward a Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Consumption: a Meta-Meta-Meta-Analysis of Some Issues Raised By the Consumer Behavior Odyssey

Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University
ABSTRACT - This paper reports the author's impressions concerning some phenomena in which he himself served as the subject for study so as to raise some methodological issues of importance to the Consumer Behavior Odyssey in general. In other words, it adopts the perspective of an informant and critically reexamines one finding that emerged from the Odyssey in order to suggest the need of an expanded role for the psychoanalytic interpretation of consumption. Specifically, it focuses on the Odyssey's approach to the author's own collection of artistic objects and questions the Odysseans' conclusions concerning the meaning of that collection. It thereby provides an explanation of an interpretation of an explication or what one might call a meta-meta-meta-analysis. All this suggests that the meaning of an informant's possessions may prove opaque to any but the most in-depth modes of observation and interpretation. Besides supporting the Odyssey's use of depth interviews, video tapes, audio recordings, photographs, and other multifaceted modes of data collection, the author's experiences as informant indicate that some latent meanings may lie buried too far beneath the manifest surface to be recoverable by any methods whose scope falls short of long-term psychoanalysis. If so, this paper raises some important questions on where naturalistic inquiry stops and psychoanalysis begins. It suggests the usefulness, in many situations, of moving beyond the relatively surface level of meaning accessible to the ethnographer to explore the psychoanalytic interpretation of consumption.
[ to cite ]:
Morris B. Holbrook (1988) ,"Steps Toward a Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Consumption: a Meta-Meta-Meta-Analysis of Some Issues Raised By the Consumer Behavior Odyssey", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 537-542.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 537-542

STEPS TOWARD A PSYCHOANALYTIC INTERPRETATION OF CONSUMPTION: A META-META-META-ANALYSIS OF SOME ISSUES RAISED BY THE CONSUMER BEHAVIOR ODYSSEY

Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University

ABSTRACT -

This paper reports the author's impressions concerning some phenomena in which he himself served as the subject for study so as to raise some methodological issues of importance to the Consumer Behavior Odyssey in general. In other words, it adopts the perspective of an informant and critically reexamines one finding that emerged from the Odyssey in order to suggest the need of an expanded role for the psychoanalytic interpretation of consumption. Specifically, it focuses on the Odyssey's approach to the author's own collection of artistic objects and questions the Odysseans' conclusions concerning the meaning of that collection. It thereby provides an explanation of an interpretation of an explication or what one might call a meta-meta-meta-analysis. All this suggests that the meaning of an informant's possessions may prove opaque to any but the most in-depth modes of observation and interpretation. Besides supporting the Odyssey's use of depth interviews, video tapes, audio recordings, photographs, and other multifaceted modes of data collection, the author's experiences as informant indicate that some latent meanings may lie buried too far beneath the manifest surface to be recoverable by any methods whose scope falls short of long-term psychoanalysis. If so, this paper raises some important questions on where naturalistic inquiry stops and psychoanalysis begins. It suggests the usefulness, in many situations, of moving beyond the relatively surface level of meaning accessible to the ethnographer to explore the psychoanalytic interpretation of consumption.

On a hill high in the Pocono Mountains two hours' drive from New York located about five miles southwest of Lord's Valley, Pennsylvania and surrounded by woods filled with deer, raccoons, and even bear who roam amidst the other scattered dwellings, sits a small grey house that my wife Sally and I use for weekend retreats and for brief vacations from the noise and bustle of the Big City (Figure 1, Panels A and B). During the Summer of 1986, this house received visits from two sets of guests. The first was a hoard of insects, rodents, and other arcadian vermin who had taken advantage of our prolonged absence during the preceding Spring to invade our house and to make it their home. The second was a group of my friends form the Consumer Behavior Odyssey.

These two visitations were closely interwoven in both their timing and the meaning that they imparted to my experiences as a consumer, homeowner, and researcher. In late June, about three weeks before the scheduled arrival of my peripatetic colleagues, Sally and I went to the house to get it ready for occupancy by the Odysseans. There, to our horror, we discovered a rampant infestation of household pests that ranged in their degree of ferocity and intimidating potential from simple daddy-long-legs spiders and armies of ants marching across the living-room floor (Panel C) to swarms of angry flying creatures and legions of field mice who had moved inside to keep warm during the cold winter months (Panel D). Feeling somewhat as if we had been struck by all seven plagues simultaneously, I immediately acquired a massive collection of anttraps, mousetraps, bee poison, rat poison, and other murderous pesticides. I stored this potent arsenal in a bookcase near the front door (Panel E) and employed it relentlessly to attack the mobs of intruders that flew, crawled, and crept through the nooks and crannies of our living quarters. I felled whole battalions of worker ants. I pumped an entire can of wasp-and-hornet spray into a nest of vicious yellow jackets. I set a dozen mousetraps every night, sometimes catching as many as eight or nine mice at a time. Eventually, my labors as an exterminator more or less rid the house of pests and prepared it for the advent of a new set of visitors. These thoughts occupied my mind as I sat in the gazebo (Panel B) and awaited the arrival of my friends on the Consumer Behavior Odyssey. My log entry for Tuesday, July 29, clearly reflects the aftermath of my Battle with the Bugs:

On arriving at the house, I unpack the car (which could use a wash and maybe a new coat of paint), put away the groceries (such as they are) and my clothes (what I can fit on my half of the closet shelf), open all the windows (to clear the musty smell that has collected in only a day and a half), spray half a can of bee poison into the now-deserted wasp nest that I stumbled on the other day (with painful results), and perform a superficial rat patrol (finding no mouse signs for the first time in recent memory, probably because we have only missed two nights in the house).

Imagine my surprise when the first thing the Odysseans noticed upon entering our house was my vast assortment of pesticides. Rick Pollay immediately spread out my arsenal on the floor and began photographing it, gleefully announcing that this would serve as a wonderful example for his marketing class (Panel F). Meanwhile, Russ Belk's field notes for August 7 reveal that he, too, was forcefully struck by my assembled implements of death and destruction.

Morris...relates his great mice hunt and ant eradication after not coming up to HF last winter. He also used to date a girl whose father was and NRA member, and he took up target shooting with a .22 caliber rifle that he still has in the house here. He also used to do target shooting with a bow and arrow and tried to shoot squirrels with it. He never hunted, but probably aimed his beebee gun at animals. [See totemic animal discussion in today's journal.] Morris also talks about disposal of mice, their stupidity, and the possibility that they mourn. Earlier discussion indicated that it was mouse droppings that most annoyed Morris. Their dead bodies also horrify him, so he picks them up with tongs and throws them away still in their traps. They are then thrown away in the garbage. Neither Morris nor son Chris ever had rodents as pets. The deer in HF are even seen as pests partly, although they are beautiful. They harbor ticks that carry Old Lyme disease that is arthritis-like. Raccoons are pests.

FIGURE 1

THE POCONO HOUSE

My efforts to explain the need for all the pesticides proved futile. No amount of vivid detail could convince the Odysseans that I had not over-reacted to the pest problem. Even my scariest story about finding a dead mouse in Jeff Durgee's bed won no converts to my point of view. All this left me with a certain sense of frustration reflected in my log entry for Thursday, July 31:

We stop at Nyboffs just before closing at 5:00 to see if the electronic mouse screamers have arrived. Mrs. Nyboff says that the large one has come in for her other customer, but that she has had to backorder the two smaller ones that I had requested. (After all, we would not want to overpower the innocent mice of the field.) My Odyssey friends have found my concerns with pest control to be screamingly funny. This, after I got bitten by wasps from head to foot to protect them against the vicious dangers of the hornets's nest that I discovered only inches away from where they have been parking their van. This, after I have courageously gone on rat patrol after rat patrol, trapping and killing at least 30 or 40 of the nasty little rodents, sometimes up to eight or nine at a time. This, after I have personally laid down enough D-Con to bring the whole animal population of Eastern Pennsylvania to its knees. How innocent my friends seem to be concerning the ins and outs of household pests. I renew my vow to dedicate some research to this topic. If we can study pet consumption, then why not the consumption of household pests?

On the last day of the Odyssey Visit, the time came for me myself to serve as an informant and for Russ and Melanie to take the photographs that have since won our house a featured role in the portion of their videotape that deals with collecting fetishes (which they define as "excessive devotion or attention to an object and/or concept"). My role as informant surfaced on the evening of Thursday, August 7:

While I have some beer and peanuts, Russ and Melanie interview me about the house. Russ has taken some photos earlier while I was still typing. He seems to be working on a theme that has to do with symbolic hunting. Evidence in support of this theme includes the artistic animals scattered around the house, the longbow on the wall, and plentiful supplies of anti-mouse and -ant devices on the bookshelf near the door and in several other all-too-conspicuous corners. I re-explain the household pest problem as best I can. Amazingly, to me, they still think I am over-reacting. Maybe I should have just left that dead mouse in Jeff's bed.

As now documented for all to watch on their VCR's, the Odysseans interpreted the contents of our house as revealing as unconscious Morris-As-Great-White-Hunter theme, with the pesticides (Panels E and I:) and a longbow (Panel G) proving my murderous intent against members of the animal kingdom large and small and with our collection or art objects serving as symbolic trophies roughly equivalent at the metaphoric level to an array of moose heads, deer antlers, stuffed owls, and mounted fish. For example, Russ Belk's field notes for August 7 document the artistic contents of the house as follows:

Morris says he collects little except photos, books, music, and stuff that hangs on walls (art).... The decoration includes 2 batiks (see photos of all this) one (hated) of sea horse, turtle, and fish, one of a parrot from Grand Cayman; a pottery parrot from Cozumel, a Mexican bird design rug, a Mexican papier mache brightly painted owl; a pink flamingo recently purchased by mail in response to an ad inviting people to "ruin your neighborhood" (see earlier elitism interpretation); a plastic cat; and African lion wool hanging (the most valuable item in the house over the fireplace, named Toby by son Chris after his favorite basketball player at the time and purchased at a short-lived African shop in New York); an African-looking/wood-looking "antelope" carving (really plaster) purchased in Scranton; and a bow of painted and laminated wood (bought for $250 at a flea market last year). All hang on the wall or sit on the floor of the largest open space (living room rising two floors and dining platform). Asked whether, together with the predominant poisons and traps for ants, mice, and wasps, this portrays Morris symbolically as a great white hunter, he concedes that this may be so.

This interpretation suggested the following excerpt from the script of the Consumer Behavior Odyssey's official videotape (prepared by Russ Belk and Melanie Wallendorf and available from the Marketing Science Institute):

Another fetish we found was first suggested by the decor in this summer home. Everywhere we looked was another artistic representation of an animal, even though the owner claimed never to have intended such a theme. There was also a decorative archery bow, suggesting a hunter prepared to dominate intruding animals. And in all parts of the house and cabinets, we found a potent arsenal of poisons and traps for use against animal or insect intruders whether they walked, flew, or crawled into his territory. Again the owner cited seemingly pragmatic reasons for this arsenal, but the evidence suggested he had made a fetish of gaining dominion over the animal kingdom.

This Belk-Wallendorf focus on fetishism receives considerable support from the collection of artistic objects photographed in our house. Indeed, the interpretation vividly illustrates the potential role of photography in helping to reveal themes and motifs associated with consumption behavior. Thus, in no particular order, one finds representations (Figure 2) of an owl (Panel A), a pink Flamingo (Panel B), and two creatures drawn by Appel (Panel C); a lion (Panel D), an antelope (Panel E), and an abstract bird (Panel F3; a seahorse, a turtle, a fish, a parrot (Panel G), and some deer (Panel H); a cat (Panel I) and another bird (Panel l); another owl (Panel K) and another cal (Panel L). For me, as an informant, the most remarkable thing about this collection of photographs (which I have subsequently recreated in black-and-white) is their revelation of a clear and repetitious theme that was, for me, completely unconscious prior to its discovery by my fellow Odysseans.

FIGURE 2

THE COLLECTION OF ARTISTIC OBJECTS

In this sense, the example of my own collection of artistic objects attests rather spectacularly to the usefulness of photography as an aid in uncovering the otherwise hidden meanings of symbolic consumption. Thus, for good reason, photography and videotaping serve as valuable tools in the methodological paraphernalia that characterize naturalistic inquiry. Where I might question the powers of naturalistic inquiry, as practiced on the Odyssey, is not in its ability to uncover important consumption-related themes but rather in its ability to interpret what it thus uncovers. Here, I wish merely to suggest that sometimes, though certainly not always, understanding the consumption patterns revealed by field methods may require moving to a deeper level of analysis. Again, I believe that my own collection of art objects serves as a clear example.

For some time, I was disturbed by the interpretation of my art objects as betraying a Great-White-Hunter impulse. Consciously, I harbored nothing but the friendliest feelings toward my artistic animals. At a more deeply buried level, the Morris-As-Hunter interpretation just did not feel right to me. I therefore turned to a more psychoanalytically oriented self-reflective explication of my art collection.

This psychoanalytic self-explication drew upon my own experiences in a five-year Freudian analysis (four times a week on the couch, completed about ten years ago) and resulted in a lengthy paper entitled "The Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Consumer Behavior I Am An Anima{' (which currently struggles to survive in what can only be described as a sadomasochistic review process). This paper draws upon four reconstructed childhood memories and a subsequent phobia to suggest what I regard as a more plausible account of the meaning latent in the Pocono art collection.

I shall summarize very briefly. In Memory One, recalling an event that occurred when I was about two years old, a collie dog bites me on the cheek. In Memory Two, my father returns from World War II to find me thus wounded and gives me a big hug, scratching my other cheek with his rough beard. In Memory Three, I climb out of my crib aid crawl into bed with my nursemaid, where I feel very cozy and warm And, in Memory Four, I am badly frightened by a phonograph recording of Peter and the Wolf.

All this led to a Wolf Phobia in which, at about the age of four, I imagined that, every night, a wolf climbed through the open window into my room where it would bite my head off unless I kept it hidden underneath the covers. In light of Memories One to Four, the Oedipal components of this phobia seem pretty clear. "The wolf" represents my father (clearly associated with the collie episode); "underneath the covers" represents hidden sexual desires (associated with the nursemaid as a surrogate mother figure); "biting my head off" represents castration anxiety (associated with Peter and reflecting unconscious guilt overt the repressed with to kill the father and marry the mother). Thus interpreted, the Wolf Phobia appears to hold a key to the meaning of the artistic objects in our Pennsylvania home.

Briefly, I believe that, at a deeper level of meaning, the artworks serve as a kind of massive resolution of castration anxiety. At least half of them refer to birds (Figure 2, Panels A, B, F, G, J, and K). Birds, of course, are characterized by bills, beaks, peckers, and other clear phallic associations. Meanwhile, the other art objects abound in phallic connections such as upright members (Panel I), pubic hair (Panel D), horns (Panel E), and other protuberances (Panel L). In effect, therefore, the Pennsylvania art collection serves symbolically as a sort of sanctuary in which, figuratively, I have given birds and other phallic references metaphoric shelter that protects them from wolves. (Indeed, in this light, both the longbow and the pesticides could be explained as instantiations of the desire to ward off evil intruders.) Moreover, the Pocono collection conspicuously lacks any emblem of a wolf. Apparently, I have successfully banished this most feared creature from the region of my phallic asylum. But this compensatory mental act of vulpine abrogation raises an important questionCnamely, where has the wolf gone?

In my paper on psychoanalytic interpretation, I try to solve this mystery by suggesting that the wolf has been transformed and moved to New York City (Figure 3) where he resides on the wall of my study in the form of Karel Appel's lithograph entitled I Am An Animal (Panel A). I believe that, for me, the meaning of Appel's lithograph lies in its capacity to transform the latent terror of the wolf image into a harmless, colorful, funny, and almost lovable manifest content and thereby to suggest a mastery over the unconscious wishes and fears displaced onto the wolf metaphor (Panel B).

One could ask how I might possibly corroborate such an interpretation. The answer comes from several directions at once. First, my own psychoanalyst has expressed general agreement with my retrospective self-explication and has added some further supportive details. Second, several independent therapists not associated with the original psychoanalysis have indicated that the interpretation makes sense to them. Third, a short story that I wrote in 1976 (appended to the aforementioned paper) shows that, even then, I was preoccupied by the struggle against household pests (as represented by a partly autobiographical infestation of cockroaches). Fourth and most conspicuously, both a psychotherapist friend and Melanie Wallendorf have observed that our New York City apartment dramatically continues the pattern of phallic imagery in such artworks (Figure 3) as Picasso's smoker (Panel C), Man Ray's centaur (Panel D), and Appel's bird-like creatures (Panel E); sculptures of a bird (Panel P) and a rabbit (Panel G); statues of an Egyptian cat (Panel H), a penguin (Panel I), and a giraffe (Panel 1); a tusked walrus (Panel K) and no fewer than three brightly colored parrots (Panel L).

In summary and conclusion, I believe that insights drawn from psychoanalytic interpretation can provide rich supplementary explications of the material uncovered by naturalistic inquiry. Through photographs, videotapes, depth interviews, and other field methods, naturalistic inquiry can reveal important themes that permeate consumption experiences. However, the full explication of these themes may require the use of approaches that move beyond the relatively surface level of meaning accessible to the ethnographer to explore the psychoanalytic interpretation of consumption.

FIGURE 3

THE NEW YORK ARTWORK

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