From Goods to Beast: Consumer Interpretations of Order and Excess

ABSTRACT - Implicitly ethnographic in both style and content, this paper subsumes a range of interpretative disciplines in considering consumers and consumption as the promoters and the products of everyday life in an industrial culture. The resultant comparative analysis of two similar yet distinct sets of artisans shows their individual and collective contributions as workers and as competent members of contemporary Scottish society to be described by, and derived from, their various understandings of order and excess in material and moral terms, as well as the array of linguistic and mangerial skills commonly displayed by anyone at home in these ceaselessly changing circumstances.


Dr. Robert Grafton Small (1995) ,"From Goods to Beast: Consumer Interpretations of Order and Excess", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 92-95.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 92-95


Dr. Robert Grafton Small, University of St. Andrews


Implicitly ethnographic in both style and content, this paper subsumes a range of interpretative disciplines in considering consumers and consumption as the promoters and the products of everyday life in an industrial culture. The resultant comparative analysis of two similar yet distinct sets of artisans shows their individual and collective contributions as workers and as competent members of contemporary Scottish society to be described by, and derived from, their various understandings of order and excess in material and moral terms, as well as the array of linguistic and mangerial skills commonly displayed by anyone at home in these ceaselessly changing circumstances.

"... the subtle and unprescribed relationships between the material and the immaterial in Netherlandish art turn out to have a long and highly suggestive history, one which by turning on its head Michelangelo's unflattering reference to northern artists 'painting like women' may give some sort of sustained pedigree to these creative uncertainties". (Schama 1993:484)

In March 1989, the Secretary of State for Scotland decreed that the square where I live would, in future, be known as an area of 'special architectural or historic interest for the city of Glasgow' and conserved as such. Consequently, all the relevant householders are hugely constrained in what we may, or may not, do in terms of decoration and refurbishment to our homes and to the communal gardens we maintain in the centre of the square, and from which we each take our individual addresses. The gardens are themselves marked out by a combination of hedging and cast-iron railings that is very much in character, materially and aesthetically, with the site's nineteenth century origins, and similarly dependent on Victorian deployments of labour and skill. These attentions are also highly seasonal for the weather in the West of Scotland, and the lack of daylight in winter, make certain of the tasks improbably difficult then, if not impossible where much of the gardening is concerned.

During the most recent campaign of restoration and repair, I stepped out of the now shared front door, which was once used by a single household, and into a scene involving four employees from the firm of industrial decorators hired by our, the resident's, factor - or agent - to care for the garden railings. The bulk of this work was carried out by a trio of artisans, two painters, one more senior, and their prentice, while contact with the rest of the company depended on the supervisor who provoked the following exchange. The painters were on their mid-morning tea-break and arranged, strictly according to status, in the firm's Vauxhall AstraMax 1.7D van. [Vauxhall is to recall (The Guardian, 24th February, 1995) some 600,000 cars, including the company's Astra range, for modifications. One of the features to be altered is an airbag which may not work because of an incorrectly positioned plug, raising the delightful irony of a previously unknown hazard being introduced into everyday driving by an artefact actually intended to lessen the impact of traffic accidents.] The Senior Painter was in the driving seat, materially and metaphorically, with his newspaper resting on the steering wheel while his hands held a sandwich and a cup of tea from his vacuum flask. The Painter had the passenger seat, his hands similarly occupied with food and drink but his paper on his knees, while The Prentice squatted in the back of the van among the paints and brushes, excluded from everywhere else, including the conversation.

Supervisor - "How's it goin'?"

Senior Painter - "No bad, wi' the rain an' aw."

Supervisor - "The back doors are open but"

Senior Painter - "The fumes, ye ken ..."

Supervisor - "Ye've no got that fuckin' paint in the van!"

Senior Painter - "Worse. This yin" - clearly meaning The Painter, though without saying so - "wiz on ra bevvy las' night. An seafood wi' garlic."

Supervisor (to The Painter - in muted admiration) "Ya beast, ye. Yur a fuckin' health hazard, so y'are".

The paint in question is rust-inhibiting, fungicidal and designed to endure the icy storms of Scottish winters, yet at no point in all their days of work did I ever see any of the artisans wearing face-masks or the like as protection from either the advanced chemistry they were applying to the railings or the clouds of rust and splinters created when the ironwork was wire-brushed in preparation for painting. Clearly, too, The Supervisor's first concern had been over broached tins in the back of the van for how else had the paint arrived on site but behind the seats with The Prentice?

Even so, the basis of The Supervisor's judgement was as much a mystery to me as that of the Secretary of State, though both decisions demanded I play an active part in a number of complex and essentially social matters. Whether as a concerned householder, proud but troubled by the elevation of my mortgaged estate, or as a chance observer and academic, wondering at the significance of what I see, I am equally a subject of, and an agent in, the furtherance of some view or other of Scottish history as well as, say, notions of citizenship and property or agency and propriety. The painters also spend their lives maintaining boundaries for, like ourselves, and, indeed, any other competent member of contemporary society, these artisans make sense of the everyday world by consuming it just as they, and we, are consumed by our own sense-making.

Yet no matter what our various r(les, because of the consumption involved, these interwoven and inherently unstable patterns of symbolic and material exchange are constantly reinforced and reinvented, largely without mishap or misjudgement, bearing in mind the adult horseplay over bestiality. Intellectually and industrially generated artefacts have already been mentioned elsewhere (Grafton-Small and Linstead 1990:417) as means of imposing order on a landscape, be it physical or philosophical, and with the fence painters, the pale may be taken to include brushes with life and death, even the workings of time and space.

Significantly, though, the vital elements of bricolage and pure inventiveness in this consuming process (Grafton Small 1994) pay little or no public part in the structuring and management of what is undeniably a symbolic event, and in more ways than there are participants. Thus it is considered both proper, meaning commonly unremarkable, and necessary that these hired hands should sell their labour, hence themselves, to create their own futures by recreating other peoples' - The Secretary of State, the hiring householders, the contract decorators - current conceptions of the past, of nineteenth century history and architecture, albeit from a great deal of period material.

So the seating arrangements in the van, and the explicit choices of food and drink and newspaper, are not only material products of the decorators' everyday understandings of industrial society, and their relative positions therein (Douglas and Isherwood 1980:68), but widely recognised as such, even by people having neither background nor commerce in common with the painters. Equally, their apparent though unspoken appreciations of diet, gender and risk, even of order and organisation, to the notion of a tea-break itself, may be inferred in part from a similar basis yet never guessed absolutely.

That we are dealing here with a process of management as much as consumption is apparent both from the resources being distributed in decorating the garden fence and in the structures of authority that are implicit in the same schemes of maintenance. Nor, despite the undeniable resonance (Woodward 1994:47), is this merely a Marxist relationship between technology, self and hierarchy expressed in dealings with each other and with the world at large. What we are witnessing, in tangible and symbolic terms, is the negotiation of permeable boundaries defining, amongst other things, the ownership of, and entry to, bodies, human and financial, gardens, houses, vans, work groups, manhood, meaning, by negation, the alternatives, and, lest we forget the fart, polite society.

In effect, then, the alignment of people in a landscape and the landscaping of our various internal environments are one and the same for the painters' story stains everyone involved in its telling, even those who only appear to listen. Earwitness Canetti, Modern in death as in life, attaches a history to his own footnote (1991:23). 'So much, so much, and everything wants to exist. Mysterious, the place things find for themselves: so many penetrations, and everything preserves its consistency.'

But how are these things given shape and what are our parts in their constitution? Treichler, for one (1994:132), insists the divisions are constructed and dissolved by their inhabitants from within, not from any outside as detached analysis would suggest. Falk, on the other hand (1994:138), is concerned that while the principle of distinction or separation is an essential element of individual and social differentiation, there remains the problem of desire as a characteristic of consumer behaviour and as an impetus for the generation of consumption. Some measure of consumer's own difficulties with the selfsame issue can be derived from a further incident in which I was also, through my appetite for goods and services, an accidental though concerned observer of the commonplace. That rail workers are again involved, as well as many parallels with the previous instance is more deliberate, however, like the significant differences.

Shortly before Christmas last year, I boarded the Aberdeen train at Edinburgh. I was on my way to work, as were many of the passengers, mainly riggers from the oil wells in the North Sea with connections to make at the east coast helicopter terminals and shuttle flights to catch before nightfall. I've been using this line for years now and depending upon their direction, the trains are well known as either the riggers' last chance for a drink or their first taste of alcohol in some time, each tour of duty being usually two weeks long and on rigs which are notoriously 'dry', not least because they're permanently 'in the drink' and uncommonly hazardous as a matter of course. That numbers of my fellow travellers would therefore be celebrating Christmas and, more significantly in Scotland, the New Year, without a dram is thus generally understood as a necessary side-effect of their employment, needing neither justification nor any further argument.

These constraints do nevertheless require management in the broader sense, and self-control, particularly when, as was the case in this event, the fading light of a winter's day was already compromised by scheduling delays, landslides and rolling stock failures following forty-eight hours of severe rainfall, and flooding throughout Scotland that weekend. When the train finally arrived, a two-coach commuter affair, some while after noon, I took up my customary position on one of the dickie seats in the corridor, harder and smaller than those in the main compartments but quieter and more suited to reading, I find, especially when there's an obvious and sizeable drunk sitting at the back of the second coach.

He announced the fact by singing, sprawling and smoking in a non-smoking compartment. Then, following one of the inevitable and wearisome waits for a signalling fault to be repaired, he helped himself to unpaid-for beer from the catering trolley, perhaps by way of compensation. Denied further relief by the occupied toilets, he staggered the length of the train, kicking and cursing as he went, before pissing in a convenient corner of the luggage bay and returning to his seat. Intimidated passengers apart, the young steward whose trolley was robbed and the guard on the train appeared, at first, to be helpless, until we reached the station at Kirkcaldy.

Here, two very poised police officers, one grey-haired, the other younger, waited patiently for those who wanted to get off, before quietly but ruthlessly easing the sodden celebrant on to the platform and into handcuffs, his hold-all not forgotten. While many of the onward bound clapped and cheered, I scribbled across my newspaper the conversation of two men next to me in the corridor, their oil-company kitbags describing them as riggers long before their dismissal made the drunk a third.

"Is he a Scouser?"

"Nah. He's a Yorkie, laik, but that's ... He's not on, wi' women and bairns an' all".

"Fuckin' pathetic. All for a bottle of brown ale ..."

"He's missed his flight, and lost his job."

Clearly for this couple, as with the school of painters, everyday notions of manliness in modern society are very much a matter of defining one's own limits rather than be subject to the intrusion of another's control (Theweleit 1987:414), fantasies of male rape notwithstanding. Equally, where Falk is concerned (1994:76), such a loss of autonomy symbolises a terrible confusion between those who eat and those who are consumed, hence between cultured good order and the untamed world of beasts. Not, however, in the sense that The Supervisor uses the term, where the meaning is akin to folk magic, naming The Painter by his defeated enemies in recognition of his heroic feats of consumption and self-preservation in the face of notoriously disruptive forms of food and drink.

Victor Turner (1978:287) suggests symbolic inversions like these may be to break people out of their culturally defined, even biologically ascribed, r(les, by making them play precisely their opposites. So the disciplined, biddable artisan whose body and appetites are subject to corporate discipline during the working day may signify the free individual within by indicating his self-control and trustworthiness under duress, his ability to manage himself were he given the chance.

Bourdieu (1984:179) goes a step further, noting that the art of eating and drinking remains one of the few areas in which the working classes challenge prescribed approaches to living. In addition to the public order embodied, and enforced, by the police officers at Kirkcaldy, there is the new ethic of sobriety for the sake of slimness, which is most recognised at the highest levels of the social hierarchy. Yet peasants and especially industrial workers maintain an ethic of convivial indulgence. Mars (1987:100) finds as much among bounded occupational communities that defy management in the broadest sense by their internally generated pressures to marked thriftlessness and material destruction. Under such circumstances, Glasgow's notoriety as Heart Attack Capital of the World appears in a new light for, to echo Mary Douglas (1986:18), the social factors that influence risk perception include moral judgements about the kind of society in which we want to live.

Some indication of the resultant cultural divergence is apparent not only in the obvious conflicts between individually managed appetites and industrially apportioned time - you could eat and drink when the job allows, not when you're hungry and thirsty - but in the very words with which these constraints are constructed and expressed. As Kelman (1995:25) insists, while there is nothing innately wrong with the language of joiners, plumbers and welders, they and those like them are encouraged to believe their own speech, their communal dialect, is a debased thing, a further reflection of the disparities and distinctions described by contemporary patterns of consumption.

I am implicated here myself on several grounds. I may be a passenger in the same train as the riggers, and for similar reasons, yet I will be home before they are, and my job is generally my own responsibility, as well as much less dangerous. Differences in pay apart, I am also free from the alchemical risks undergone by the painters, and though I was once a notable drinker some years ago, I and my circumstances have changed considerably since then. Now, paradoxically, my body lends Small weight to Bourdieu's previous argument and the casual ethnography I indulge in as part of my work may easily be taken as an intrusion, an excess of arriviste order imposed on subjective definitions of self and society which despite appearances, are never fully determined by structural constraints but always in the act of 'becoming' (Silverman 1970:184-185).

By the same token, however, the curses and the comedy I took as raw material can hardly be said to have had complete or constant meanings in the original settings. That there were, and are, ambiguities of order and excess for the painters and the riggers, and you, to manage is as much a matter of our separate and collective daily lives as the goods and services originally exchanged between the artisans and I, accidents notwithstanding. This common management is vital for disorder and dissolution are an ever present threat to ourselves and our culture, both implicitly in biological terms (Gould 1993:312), and explicitly (Bourdieu 1990:80), should we once fail in our ability to make and to reinterpret the objects, ideas and symbols, even the oil-workers' stereotypes, Yorkie and Scouser, that constitute our particular understandings of the world.

So, when a single rigger proves incapable, and his peers help to restore the social fabric, the repair work may only hint at their notions of what is fit for women and children yet some idea of the men's underlying assumptions can be gleaned, as much from what they do and say on the train as from what they don't. Other compelling interpretations, that, for example, the oil-workers are patriarchal if not openly sexist (Gamman and Marshment 1988), should also be expected under these circumstances, given the undeniable mix of competencies and backgrounds among the passengers, and subsequently as a result of my account and artifice - presuming an audience, of course! [I am equally conscious of the ambivalence surrounding definitions of culture and community when British Interpretations of Consumer Behaviour are represented, in part at least, by a paper from Scotland that draws on French and American Sources as well as a view of seventeenth century Lowlands history written in English, not Dutch.]

Equally, when the Secretary of State decrees a particular view of history and architecture is worthy of preservation, or, more properly, representation, we can understand readily enough that the resources consumed in this management of social order symbolise, above all, the power and status of a specific person and not an inherently overpowering view of what mattered, even in Glasgow, when the order was made. Nowadays, we know things would be different. We can also accept that an interpretation of history is being revalued in terms of socially managed goods though we might not agree with either the expenditure or the results. Citizens ourselves, and consumers, too, we recognise the inequalities of wealth and authority encoded and extended by these multiple exchanges and spend our lives accordingly, our standings as secure as The Prentice's confinement or the garden fence. Not an absence of management, as Robert Heller would have it (1995), rather a question of what distinguishes a manager.


The original manuscript of this paper was completed in the brasserie where I prefer to work - it's more productive than being at the University - and literally as the last sentence was being written, a friend of mine from the Glasgow Development Agency walked in. He told me over coffee that the newly rebuilt, low-rise Gorbals, once a famous working-class community on the lower banks of the Clyde, has in its leases, a contractual understanding that, irrespective of background or outlook, all the tenants involved will plan and manage their shared gardens among themselves, as they see fit. This is a deliberate ploy to reconstruct communities torn apart a generation ago by the slum-clearance schemes and sky scrapers that stood for Modernity then, and which are now monuments to mismanagement, meaning lately demolished or about to be. Apparently, the current developers took their notions of shared property as a basis for common culture from detailed interpretations of squares and social circles like those where I live. It is also quite possible that the artisans who paint my garden railings are on the other side of the fence, if not the tracks, in The Gorbals, both as tenants and as consumers of goods and services.


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Theweleit, K. 1987. Male Fantasies: women, bodies, history. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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Dr. Robert Grafton Small, University of St. Andrews


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995

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