Special Session Summary Utopian Consumption

Robert V. Kozinets, Northwestern University
[ to cite ]:
Robert V. Kozinets (2002) ,"Special Session Summary Utopian Consumption", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 62-64.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 62-64



Robert V. Kozinets, Northwestern University


Utopias, our collective visions of better societies, are powerful forces motivating social and personal acts. In recent years, consumer research attention to the utopian aspects of consumption appears to be rising. Yet simply because the concept of utopia has been used by several consumer researchers does not make it a useful concept. Utopia is an ideological concept whose connotative backlashes, literary variety, and political dimensions may make it more obfuscating than revealing. This session examined the strengths and weaknesses of the concept of utopia in explaining and exploring some of the cultural dimensions of both mundane and extraordinary consumer behavior.

The presentations were three ethnographic inquiries that contextually demonstrate and critically evaluate some of the utopian dimensions of particular contexts of cultural consumer behavior. First, Russ Belk and Janeen Costa presented their 20-minute videography focusing on the Mountain Man Rendezvous. These utopian reenactments rely on fragile boundaries created through the use of temporal and spatial remoteness, rituals that focus on a mythic past, and the consumption of clothing, decorations, shelters and furniture, weaponry and activities that are deemed to be "authentic" to the period. "Authenticity" is a particularly powerful dimension of this constructed utopia, emphasized in Mountain Men’s ironic construction of modern Native American powwows as "inauthentic." Pauline Maclaran and Stephen Brown’s photographically-rich presentation studied Dublin’s Powerscourt Townhouse Centre’s festival marketplace. It found interesting links between retail space, the complexity and contradiction of liminal spaces, and the evolution and devolution of urban utopias. Robert Kozinets presented a 17-minute videography of a June 2001 Chicago Star Trek Convention in which social and technologically utopian discourse was shown to have the ability to render shopping and consumption behavior to be akin to forms of moral support.

John Sherry, the discussion leader, commented on the ability of the presentations to provide alternative and highly visual forms of representation, to emphasize the importance of embodiment and the dynamism of cultures, and o explode dualisms such as work and play or fantasy and reality. He compared utopian consumers to "cartographers of moral geography" who also seek universal truths while they are seeking products to consume. The vigorous discussion prompted by the presentations ranged from imaginative hedonism to renunciatory extremes, from the role of Hollywood in consumption to its ability to create new religions. The tacking between utopias and dystopias was also of interestCover time, one could change to the other, and what appeared to be utopian to some groups was dystopian to others. While the relativism of truth and fantasy in utopian social constructions were asserted, the discussion also raised the importance of researchers’ attempts to analyze the political and power-laden interests they expressed.



Russell Belk, University of Utah

Janeen Arnould Costa, University of Utah

In our increasingly electronic, virtual, and acronymistic world of cell phones, pagers, the Internet, MP3, GPS, PDAs, DVDs, CDROMs, and IPOs, the contemporary rendezvous re-enacting the yearly 1825-1840 era fur trade festivals of buying, selling, and carousing is a curiously purposeful anachronism. All of these high tech devices, as well as cars, junk foods, plastics, and anything else that would not have been found in the Rocky Mountain West during the days of the mountain man, are strictly forbidden within the contemporary rendezvous. In this video presentation, we examine the nature of the utopia that men, women, and children create in these rendezvous re-enactments. We focus particularly on boundariesB bounded time, space, groups, and consumption practicesBthat create, at least for some, a utopian ideal empowered by romantic notions of a semi-mythical historical phenomenon believed to be more "authentic," genuine, and fulfilling than the quotidian lives of its periodic participants. At the same time we examine the self-defining use of humor in the liminal environment of the contemporary rendezvous. This self-definition seems to rest upon appropriating a mutually constructed "other" as a temporarily enacted self. We use participant observation, depth interviews, and deep readings of the texts that sustain this magical milieu in order to consider the extent of self-transformation that takes place and from which participants are able to benefit in these staged romantic utopias.

In particular, we contrast the image of historical Native Americans in the present-day rendezvous versus in the contemporary Native American Powwow. Because there are few Native Americans at modern rendezvous and few whites at Powwows, these two personae and the two invented traditions in which they are imbedded are largely separate and mutually exclusive. The socially constructed notion of (historical) authenticity is used by contemporary mountain men to argue that they and their rendezvous are authentic while contemporary Native Americans and their Powwows are not. This contested authenticity is especially played out in clothing and artifacts. Ironically, a few Native Americans who have come to contemporary rendezvous and entered costume competitions in their Powwow garb, have lost to whites whose costumes are judged to be more authentic.

A part of the appeal of the contemporary rendezvous and its simple amenities and lifestyle is the image held by participants that this particular "primitive" past was altogether more genuine, satisfying, and heroic than their present lives. This is a fantasy fed by historic accounts of the original mountain men as well as recent or contemporary novels, films, and television series portraying and building the mountain man myth. It is fed as well by a general fascination with the primitive Other (Torgovnick 1990, 1997). We have long found our utopias in distant times, places, and peoples (Costa 1998), because it is generally impossible to sustain these ideals in the realities of our daily lives (McCracken 1988). The alternative time, place, and personae of themountain men and the Native Americans with whom they dealt, is a far safer locus to invest with our notions of a utopian ideal. As characterized in our earlier research (Belk and Costa 1998), it is an enclave of unreality. In the present work we expand our examination to look at Native Americans and employ a video analysis that emphasizes the visual spectacle of the rendezvous. We focus particular attention on the role of boundary construction and maintenance that sustains these ideals, nurtures the fiction of authenticity, and provides the liminal environment within which personal transformations potentially take place, take time, and take possession of those who mutually enact the rendezvous.



Pauline Maclaran, De Montfort University

Stephen Brown, University of Ulster

We all possess an imaginary utopia, a secret mental space containing our hopes of happiness, our dreams and our desires (Manuel and Manuel 1979). Yet in terms of humankind the utopian imagination has had a long and controversial history. Frequently denigrated, derided and dismissed as downright drivel or dangerous dogma, the rise and fall of utopianism provides a barometer for the hopes, fears and aspirations of each successive generation. In the twentieth century, utopia has had particularly bad press. It is associated with unrealistic blueprints for perfection and the mental meanderings of coffee-house intellectuals. Dystopias and anti-utopias have tended to dominate. "Across the land a utopian spirit is dead or dismissed", claims Jacoby (1999, p. 159), as a postmodern era scorns the future perfect and looks instead for a future past.

The utopian imagination has many zealous defenders, however, those who counter that it is not dead but merely once again changing its shadowy boundaries to better reflect the aspirations and spirit of a new age. These defenders have identified the utopian imagination at work in many diverse activities and cultural forms: in communes and analogous activist projects, such as nuclear disarmament and Greenpeace (Moylan 1986); in films (Shelton 1993); in poetic writings and drawings (Yaari 1993); in photographs (Kelley 1995); in urban planning and visionary architecture (Schaer et al. 2001); and in psychedelic drug culture (Clark 1975).

According to Holloway (1984), the utopian imagination has moved off the drawing board and gone into the fabric of social life itself. In a world that is heterogeneous rather than homogenous and incomplete rather than finished and neatly circumscribed (Crook 2000), utopianism is simultaneously nowhere and everywhere. Nowhere because there can be no single all-embracing alternative to the plethora of choices available in our daily existenceBand everywhere, because it is in computer games, cults, communities and lifestyle magazines (Crook 2000). In other words, the utopian imagination itself has become fragmented, dispersed throughout our daily lives and, most often, dispensed by the marketing system.

Although there have been many references to the utopian qualities of marketing phenomena, particularly in relation to retail environments (e.g. Crawford 1992; Sandikci and Holt 1998; Sherry 1998), there has been no detailed study of how the concept of utopia relates to the consumer imagination. It is this utopian imagination that is the focus of our study as we explore it within the context of a festival marketplace, making reference to a longitudinal study that has been conducted in the Powerscourt Townhouse Centre, Dublin. Drawing on data collected before, during and after a major refurbishment to te center, the findings illustrate the complex dynamics of a utopian space.

We use three overarching and interlinked concepts in our discussions that reflect the ongoing, fluid quality of utopian imaginings in the fantasy retail context: Sensing No-Place brings feelings of a world apart to the consumer experience; Creating Playspace, refers to the open-ended, playful nature of the utopian text contained therein; and Performing Art evokes the active role of consumers in the creation of utopian meanings. Overall, the study shows how the inessential essence of the postmodern utopian function has moved from the politics of coffee-house intellectuals to the poetics of everyday consumer behavior.



Robert V. Kozinets, Northwestern University

Using videography of a Chicago Star Trek convention held on June 17, 2001, this presentation explores the Trektopia of contemporary Star Trek conventions. From its inception, Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry and his creative team articulated powerful social utopian sentiments onto Star Trek. These utopian ideologies of progress, liberty, and equality had been in wide circulation since the American and French revolutions. In the periods of the late 1960s, Star Trek’s influential representation of these values became a key part of the technocratic values, forms and ideologies arising in the burgeoning information economy. Popularizing technology as embodying abstract utopian principles of liberty, equality and justice, and linking them to the extant utopian dialectics of science fiction fans, Star Trek acted as the focal point around which a utopian fan ideology was constructed and subsequently exploited by marketers. These utopian ideological values formed the foundation of the powerfully popular and thoroughly commercialized Star Trek fan utopia CTrektopiaC a social form that could be added to the proliferation of experimental utopian communities and social experiments in the 1960s and 1970s.

While purchasing, trading, collecting, communing, meeting new friends, hearing the stars, meeting the stars, obtaining signed autographs of the stars, sharing star-related stories and viewing are key practices of Star Trek conventions, the moral foundation for them is located in an explicitly utopian dialectic within which fans look at Star Trek’s vision of the future as a template for a better society. While these explicitly utopian perspectives on action serve as unifying and legitimizing moral foundations for many of Star Trek’s fan communities, observations of perspective in action at conventions reveal a world of fantasy, popularized space science, and contact with celebrities that serves to elevate, celebrate and decommodify fans’ consumption. The stars fans seek reside not only in the limitless cosmos, but in Hollywood. Liminoid states and role-playing are encouraged by the recurrent and ubiquitous combination of spectacle and speculation. News about entertainment products is fused with personal aspirations and social values. At the consumer level, the result is a thirty-year-old social formation in which male and female consumers enact personal fantasies of mastery, achievement and status from shared interpretations of a television series.

In cultural studies and other fields, the concept and literature on utopia has been hotly contested, discredited, and also found to be a source of ideas of value. Building on the extensive utopian writings of Bloch (1986), both Jameson (1979) and Dyer (1977) teorized that entertainment products attained their lure by linking to images and ideals that are utopian. Jameson argued that all entertainment products must, in order to provide pleasure, promise at least a shred of utopia to their audiences. Levitas (1990) argued, however, that most modern utopias were little more than fantasies, because they did not provide detailed enough representations of agency or the processes of social change. However, the videography indicates that these and other cultural critics underestimate and understate the ability of contemporary utopias like Star Trek conventions to actually deliver on consumers’ expectations of utopia (see also Kozinets 2001). In providing links to community, to contact with Hollywood stars, to meaningful totems and symbols, the convention provides a place where utopia can be temporarily tested and tasted. Extending self (Belk 1988) into Star Trek’s products and services becomes a potent potential route to self-improvement, community, and social betterment. Without empirical studies, many cultural critics overstate their own outsider views of utopian communities and places as places of "mere fantasy." As it turns out, consumers in modern American society need something to grasp while they are reaching for utopia. They are not looking for inflexible totalitarian schemes that provide firm roadmaps to a better future, but for texts and narratives in which to insert themselves, to engage in play, and to fill in the gaps. Consumer culture fulfills this set of needs rather handily, easily providing a type of utopia that I have recently termed a "youtopia" (Kozinets forthcoming).

There are many implications of this videography for consumer researchers interested in utopian consumption. It suggests, foremost, that consumer research should explore the concept of utopia in contemporary consumption by ethnographically exploring the lived experience of seeking better times and places. Researchers should probe how the ideology of consumption is involved in, and utilizes, images of better places and times. Researchers should attend carefully to the political dimensions of utopian consumption. Other questions include the following. How are contemporary utopias actually consumed? With what mix of pessimism, ambivalence, and optimism are they consumed? How do utopias change other types of consumption experience? What should we say to inform consumers about utopian consumption and how should we best inform them? How and when (if ever) should we endorse the use of utopian images and themes to marketers of products, services, ideas, and politics? Looking ahead to a growing utopian presence in consumer research, there is much progress to be made.


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