The Consumer in Postmodernity

A. Fuat Firat, Arizona State University West
ABSTRACT - Postmodern culture, which seems to be dominating advanced capitalist societies of the West, produces several major conditions which are difficult to understand and represent using modernist categories. This paper discusses some of these conditions, specifically, hyperreality, fragmentation, reversal of production and consumption, decentering of the subject, and juxtaposition of opposites. Based on these discussions, the implications of postmodernity for the consumers are considered, and the processes whereby consumers may be becoming products themselves are explored.
[ to cite ]:
A. Fuat Firat (1991) ,"The Consumer in Postmodernity", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 70-76.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 70-76

THE CONSUMER IN POSTMODERNITY

A. Fuat Firat, Arizona State University West

ABSTRACT -

Postmodern culture, which seems to be dominating advanced capitalist societies of the West, produces several major conditions which are difficult to understand and represent using modernist categories. This paper discusses some of these conditions, specifically, hyperreality, fragmentation, reversal of production and consumption, decentering of the subject, and juxtaposition of opposites. Based on these discussions, the implications of postmodernity for the consumers are considered, and the processes whereby consumers may be becoming products themselves are explored.

INTRODUCTION

A new perspective on life and the human condition is sweeping across the globe; specifically in the Western cultures. This new perspective is most often called postmodernism. According to some of its most prominent philosophers and researchers, postmodernism is a recognition of the "... complex conjuncture of cultural conditions ... [that have arisen from the] ... postwar restructuring of capitalism in the West and in the multinational global economy ..." (Ross 1988, p. x). Specifically, it is the recognition of illusions or myths in the modernist project (that of improving human life and existence by controlling nature through scientific technologies, see Angus 1989; Foster 1983; Habermas 1983) and, consequently, the liberation of a culture that unabashedly seeks different moments of being, be they fragmented and often paradoxical, that do not require a center or a central purpose. A major aspect of postmodern culture is claimed to be the transformed role of consumption in relation to premodern and modern society (Baudrillard 1975 and 1981; Ewen 1988 and 1989; Jameson 1983; Mourrain 1989). It might be argued that this new role of consumption in society is not so new, that it was present in modern society. The recognition of consumption as it is perceived in postmodernity, however, and actions taken by institutions of Western society -- specifically, marketing -- with such recognition are relatively new. These actions based on the new recognition are likely to produce and entrench the new (postmodern) consumption culture, thereby, a new type of consumer that is qualitatively different from the consumers of the past.

POSTMODERN CULTURE

Postmodern culture is specifically a phenomenon observed in the advanced capitalist countries of the First World, but its impacts are felt throughout the world due to the cultural, economic, and political influences of such countries. While discourse of postmodernity in art, architecture, literature, literary criticism, philosophy and other disciplines is very rich and many characteristics of postmodern culture are proposed, five basic traits will be discussed here. These are hyperreality, fragmentation, reversal of production and consumption, juxtaposition of opposites, and decentering of the subject.

Hyperreality

Hyperreality is a concept used to represent the power of simulation in determining reality. According to one of the most prominent philosophers of postmodernity, Baudrillard (1983a), it is the realization (becoming real) of what is (was) hype, of the simulation, or of the (romanticized) imagination of what is thought was (once) real. It is the (re)creation, as reality, of a simulated past that is imagined more so than identified. It is the (re)production, as reality, of what is presently assumed, a simulation (Massumi 1987). This reality is "hyper," it seems for two reasons. It is a reality beyond what reality was understood to be in the scientific (modem) era, and it is composed of what originally was and is hype.

Examples of hyperreality abound (Baudrillard 1988). The more current and powerful examples of hyperreality are to be found in cultural representations in the media as well as in the transformational marketing practices of institutions which are influential in the (re)construction of reality in the image of the simulated. We continuously witness, in everyday lives of the consumers, the reproduction of human roles, relationships, and characteristics initially simulated on the screen, on television, or other media. These roles become emulated by the audience and, thus, are found in "reality," when they were imagined in soap operas, situation comedies and films. The male and female roles repeatedly proposed in advertisements, being internalized by consumers, seem to reproduce themselves as reality.

A major element that enables hyperreality is that the relation between signifiers (verbal, visual, or material signs that represent things making them intelligible) and the referents is arbitrary, as semioticians have recognized at least since Saussure (Santambrogio and Violi 1988). In postmodernity, this arbitrariness is made full use of by attaching, creatively and with the sophisticated use of form, technique and language play, any meaning (signified) to signifiers. For example, once in the advertising medium the term toothpaste is separated from its original referent -- a paste cleansing teeth - it gets attached with new, symbolic meanings, such as sexiness, beauty, happiness, attractiveness, etc. These new meanings simulate a new reality when powerfully communicated, and therefore, accepted to be true -- that is, when a segment of consumers feel and/or attribute sexiness, attractiveness, etc., to a (special brand/kind of) toothpaste to which such meanings are attached. This simulation becomes reality for a community of believers, because, now, when the toothpaste is used, the consumer is indeed found sexy, attractive, etc. Similar examples are found with clothing items (e.g., blue jeans), cigarettes, cosmetics, and other products. They are also found in everyday life and in our material environment. Reproduction of wharf areas or boardwalks, cafes and other recreational sections in metropolitan centers that replicate only what is imagined of the past, recreation of the architecture of those past times as only pastiche (Jameson 1983), and the reproduction of imagined authenticity in tourist centers to enable a "true" experience for the tourists are only a few of such examples.

Hyperreality, then, is an "imaging" based on the signification process (imbuing signifiers with meanings) that is replicated in or into reality. It is through such images that the consumer of postmodernity builds one's own everyday life and senses the meaning of one's own existence and place in society. In postmodern culture where the fact of hyperreality is not only recognized but unabashedly practiced by the ultimate institution of postmodernity, marketing, the form of consumer literacy is transformed. The consumer becomes less literate in the modern sense, that is, in reading into words and signs to connect, associate and discover the essence or center of things in order to achieve an understanding. The new literacy is one of watching or exposing oneself to the innumerable images in order to develop a recognition of where they stand and what meanings they carry. This new literacy presents the consumer the tools for positioning oneself in society, in all different situations, and in (re)presenting the wanted or required images.

Fragmentation

Fragmentation is another major property of postmodern culture (Baudrillard 1981; Jameson 1983; Stephanson 1988). Fragmentation in the sense that all things are disconnected and disjointed in their representation from each other, their origins and history, and contexts. Rather, they constitute communicational instances. That is, in postmodern culture something is an entity only insofar as it presents or represents (in general, communicates) an image (as a bundle of symbols). In a culture of many competing representations there is competition to arouse interest and produce a desired effect. Lacking substantive linkages to each other or to a common content or origin, each instance of communication must be independently exciting to the senses. Interest, attention, and retention cannot be expected on the basis of relevance to other phenomena or communications due to the disconnectedness of the representations. Consequently, it is the form, the style (Ewen 1988), or the technique of each instance of communication that enables success in terms of retention of the representation or image communicated. The instances of communication acquire an intensity, specifically emotional, based on such form, style, and technique. Pace, show value, and sensationalism dominate the media (Newcomb 1979). Each instance of communication, then, becomes a spectacle (Jameson 1983; Real 1979). Television commercials and music videos which borrow many images and styles from each other, and which are increasingly imitated by other television programs and Hollywood, provide excellent examples of this phenomenon of the spectacle.

Fragmentations in life and history, as well as in communicated images and representations are also reflected in consumption. This has been reinforced through the differentiation and specialization of products in the market system. Each product has an image and a communicated purpose that is specialized. In some cases, each instance of consumption of the product serves a special purpose and fulfills the acquisition of the desired image by the consumer. By consuming a microwave oven, for example, a consumer represents to oneself and to others the desired image of oneself -- which may be one of independence, of having an exciting life in the fast track, d being free from banal chores, etc. - an image that has been produced by the interaction of the consumer's cultural context and the marketing media. On the other hand, consumption of a car may represent different images when used by the same consumer in different instances and contexts, in each instance producing the consumer's desired image -- charming, outgoing, efficient, risk-taker, cautious, lover of adventure, industrious, family-oriented, etc. -- for that context, cultivated by the same interaction (Wernick 1989).

In each instance of consumption, for example, as the consumer eats a frozen dinner, watches television, brushes his/her teeth, feeds the cat, the consumer perceives an independent, separate purpose. Each requires a different product, each fulfills a need that is fragmented and separated from others. The consumption life of the consumer is segmented, fragmented into separate moments which are not or only superficially linked. Each instance may well be cultivated to represent a different image of oneself; as a matter of fact this seems to be the rule. Thus, a schizophrenia (Deleuze and Guattari 1987; Jameson 1983) is reflected in consumption. In postmodern culture where the theme is escape from unity, cynical contempt for central authority, irreverence, difference, and segmentation (Venkatesh 1989), images represented will be different for different people. The catch in the capitalist market system is, however, that to represent the different images people will be acquiring and consuming the same products -- the microwave, the car, the television set, the designer clothing, etc. -- and adopting the same consumption pattern represented by these products (Firat and Dholakia 1982). So, what appears to be difference at the level of symbolic culture turns out to be an underlying uniformity.

Reversal of production and consumption

The project of modernity clearly emphasized production (Aronowitz 1988) as the worthy and meaningful activity in society; one of creation and usefulness. The emphasis was on positive contribution, work, productivity, usefulness to humanity. The postmodern project has reversed the emphasis and the order of things. The central project is no longer production but consumption, no longer orderly work and contribution to society but recognition of crises in all facets of culture and society (Angus 1989; Baudrillard 1988; Lyotard 1984; Mourrain 1989).

Many thinkers of postmodernism who have been influenced by or grown within the Marxist tradition (for example, Baudrillard) are, nevertheless, critical of Marx, in that they feel he has completed and corrected classical political economy, not radically replaced it (Poster 1975). The primacy of production is very much kept in Marxist theory. Except, Marx has also recognized the unity of production and consumption (Marx 1973). While classical political economists made a clear distinction between production and consumption (productive consumption versus consumption proper; see Mill 1929; Say 1964), Marx argued that consumption is simultaneously production and production is simultaneously consumption. Within this framework, however, he emphasized that in this process the determining moment was what the classical political economists called productive consumption, the production of commodities (products for which there is market exchange). It was the relations human beings entered into during the production of commodities, which in capitalism are relations of capital, that determined class structures, dominant ideologies, and the existing social order.

Baudrillard (1975 and 1988) as well as other postmodernist thinkers reverse the priorities in the production-consumption cycle (Angus and Jhally 1989; Jameson 1983). "... Baudrillard 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).

The implication of the reversal in postmodernism is that consumption 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 very much a social act where symbolic meanings, social codes, and relationships are produced and reproduced. Consumption is no longer a profane activity -- as opposed to production being sacred, for example -- and no longer is conspicuous consumption considered a folly, something not to be very proud of. On the contrary, consumption has become the means of self-realization, self-identification; a means of producing one's self and self-image.

Postmodernist insights lead us to conclude that production never ceases, that it is a continual process. Only, the form of production changes at different moments of the process. At the moment generally known as production, the producers are human beings, the products are the commodities. At the moment generally known as consumption, the producers are the commodities, the products are the human beings.

Decentering of the subject

In modernity, the human being as the subject, and his/her needs, were the focus, the center of attention and purpose. Improvement of the conditions of life for the subject was, as discussed earlier, the project of modernity. This project, with all its contradictions, is represented in Maslow's hierarchy (Kilbourne 1987). In postmodernity there is, what is generally called, the "death of the subject" (Jameson 1983). The subject is decentered from its position of control, and the subject-object distinctions are confused. As Baudrillard articulates discussing the automobile: "... The subject himself, suddenly transformed, becomes a computer at the wheel ... [t]he vehicle now becomes a kind of capsule, its dashboard the brain, the surrounding landscape unfolding like the televised screen (instead of a live-in projectile as it was before) ..." (Baudrillard 1983b, p. 127). Thus, the object (the product consumed) sets the parameters and the rules of the consumption process (Firat and Dholakia 1982; Firat 1987). The subject is not in control but controlled, becoming, in effect, an object in the consumption process. The individual subject and individualism are lost, instead we have human beings repeating and replicating the mechanics necessitated and imposed by the natures of the products they use or consume.

Maybe well aware of this loss and the frustrations it may entail, many marketing organizations continue to emphasize individuality in their promotions of mass-consumed products. Consumers are called to feel unique as they use fragrances, clothing items (designer clothes), cars, etc., that millions of others use. Postmodern culture is well reflected in this seeming contradiction. Hyperreality is evident in the representation of uniqueness through objects that are the same and mass-produced. It is further evident in the fact that many no longer feel uniqueness cannot be achieved through such mass-consumed products. Now uniqueness is attached to signifiers (in this case, brand names of products) separated from their original referents (mass-produced items initially identified by a certain brand name). But, uniqueness itself as a signifier is also detached from its original meaning and serves only as the expression of an image that excites the senses because it remotely recalls a content that it is now devoid of.

Did the independent, unique, individual subject ever exist (Jameson 1983)? Is postmodernism the death of such a subject or only the recognition that it was always a myth? Whatever our answers to these questions, they do not change our project in this paper; one of recognizing what postmodernity means for an understanding of the consumer of this era.

Juxtaposition of opposites

There is wide ranging consensus among postmodernist theoreticians that one of the major characteristics of postmodern culture is its paradoxical nature (Foster 1983; Hutcheon 1988; Wilson 1989). As anything can be juxtaposed to anything else (Gitlin 1989, p. 350), so are oppositional or contradictory emotions (love with hate, contempt with admiration) and cognitions (belief with doubt, reverence with ridicule). This phenomenon is readily observable in art, literature, advertising, as well as in other media. Consider, for example, the advertisements where the product advertised is simultaneously made fun of and promoted, or advertisements that provoke credibility by discrediting advertising. Consider talk-show hosts who propose fondness of their guests and topics through slight ridicule, and comedians who invoke reverence for institutions, political leaders, and celebrities as they offer insults. Examples of such juxtaposition of opposites also abound in art and literature (Foster 1985; Hutcheon 1988; Owens 1983).

"Postmodernism refuses to privilege any one perspective, and recognizes only difference, never inequality, only fragments, never conflict" (Wilson 1989, p. 209). This is largely the consequence of the juxtaposition of contradictory emotions and cognitions regarding perspectives, commitments, ideas, things in general. Anything is at once acceptable and suspect. On the one hand, this "... very imprecision of the concepts of postmodernism and the postmodern is exciting, even liberating" (Wilson 1989, p. 208). On the other hand, it leaves the person in a limbo, a state of never being certain where one stands, causing a continual seeking of new states and new experiences. In effect, the person becomes the ideal consumer, never finding sufficient satisfaction in who one is or what one has and continually participating in the market seeking new products for a different experience.

In advanced capitalism, this lack of commitment and consequent continual seeking in the market renders the market the dominant domain of legitimation (Amin 1982). No emotional or cognitive commitment beyond a single purchase for a trial consumption is required in the market. Anything can be tried and dropped as long as the buying power is existent. After all, in postmodernity one can simultaneously critique and make fun of oneself for one's consumption behavior (such as, being a "couch potato") and enjoy the experience. The final moral is that if a product is in the market and it is being paid for, it must be all right. In such capacity, the market in postmodern culture also becomes the great assimilator. It acculturates all kinds of rebellion and radical critique through "incorporation." By emptying the expressions (music, fashion, etc.) of rebellion (e.g., punk) of their content (original meaning) it commodifies them into money making ventures and pulls the movements into the "market economy."

THE CONSUMER IN POSTMODERNITY

A gallant effort to discuss the impact of postmodernist philosophy on consumer research has been made by Sherry (1989). His characterization of postmodernism as tolerant of incommensurable alternatives and as sensitive to differences, following Lyotard's (1984) views, however, may be an optimistic one. The cultural traits which have led to the studies of postmodernism are, at times, most unforgiving and intolerant of possible alternatives.

The consumer in postmodern culture is perplexed by the density, the intensity, and the fragmentation of the instances of communication, by hyperreality that continuously (re)creates fresh images and meanings based on the same signifiers, and by the incredible array of brands and products that impose their own rules and procedures as a way of life. The consumer in postmodern culture thus transcends the state of being the subject positioned in society to satisfy one's individual needs, and becomes positioned and identified by what one consumes, projecting (an) image(s) necessitated by the hyperreal's demands upon the role(s} assigned to one by the culture. Furthermore, the postmodern consumer is no long only the consumer but also the consumed, produced as a product of the consumption patterns (Firat and Dholakia 1982), ready, able and willing to be effectively consumed by the reigning system in the production and reproduction of commodities of the culture that perpetuate and advance the system. The postmodern consumer is not only a consumer for one's own ends, but also an object in the cycle of production for the ends of a system. Such a consumer might be called the metaconsumer (Firat 1991).

Some of the implications of the entrenchment of the metaconsumer in the era of postmodernity have been-recently recognized in the field of consumer research by researchers who are at the forefront of major leaps in methodological and theoretical movements in this field. The studies directly related to implications of postmodernity involve consumption experiences (Holbrook and Hirschman 1982; Holbrook 1987), materialism (Belk 1985, 1986, and 1987; Belk and Pollay 1985), meanings of possessions (Belk 1988; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988), semiotics (McCracken 1986 and 1988; Mick 1988; Sherry 1989), and consumption patterns (Firat and Dholakia 1982; Firat 1987). These studies tend to indicate that (i) consumers seek to express themselves and their relationships to others through the products they possess, (ii) they attribute value to and express feelings (such as love) through material objects, (iii) valued experiences require the presence of products, (iv) consumer self-image is dependent on the symbolic meanings culturally attached to products consumed, and (v) products widely consumed in society represent relationships and meanings that compliment each other and that are consistent with the reproduction necessities of the dominant system in society.

The implications of these findings for the roles of the consumer and marketing in society are supportive of the postmodernist conclusions. In postmodern culture the products are increasingly becoming the essence of society and consumers increasingly live as the means of reproducing the simulated images for the products. This reversal in human life is reflected in other elements of culture that postmodernist thinkers study, such as, politics, aesthetics, communication media, and the arts. In these fields, as well, the reversal is observed between the narrative and the spectacle, between the form and the substance. While in modernity the form of a film, for example, was managed to enhance its substantive message, or individual scenes of the film were used to tell the whole story (narrative) better, in postmodernity only a superficial narrative is used to provide room for the spectacle (individual scenes of great excitement and sensation) (Marchetti 1989a, 1989b). The spectacle, in the end, is the narrative. That is, the master narrative (meaning, the dominant perspective on reality, the dominant ideology) of postmodernity is (the dominance of) the spectacle. The substance of postmodernity is its form, style, and technique.

Similarly, the products of the market to be purchased and consumed are the substance of postmodern consumption culture. No longer is the master narrative of human consumption in postmodern, advanced capitalism the improvement of human lives. The new master narrative is the product (the spectacle) (Winders 1989; Wright 1989). The consumer, itself as a product, is a part of this narrative as one spectacle after another in (re)presenting the different images in one instance after another.

Marketing is the institution that facilitates, creates, and diffuses this culture. It is the ultimate social practice of postmodern culture. No longer are the production and reproduction of the images, simulations, and meanings accidental or haphazard. They are deliberate and organized through the institutions of marketing. No longer can anyone participate in the (re)production of symbols and meanings that get attached to the signifiers. They have to muster power to influence and control marketing institutions.

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