An Asian-Based Perspective on Postmodern Consumer Culture and Consciousness: the Nature of Mind

ABSTRACT - Consumers in postmodern culture face the bewildering spectacle of the subversion of the self, the blurring of boundaries, and hyperreality, among other phenomena. These phenomena, which are reflected in the goods and services they consume, parallel states of mind as described by Tibetan Buddhist thought. This paper outlines these perspectives and draws implications for the evolution of consumer culture, consciousness and research.


Stephen J. Gould (1994) ,"An Asian-Based Perspective on Postmodern Consumer Culture and Consciousness: the Nature of Mind", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. Joseph A. Cote and Siew Meng Leong, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 306-310.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1994      Pages 306-310


Stephen J. Gould, Baruch College, The City University of New York


Consumers in postmodern culture face the bewildering spectacle of the subversion of the self, the blurring of boundaries, and hyperreality, among other phenomena. These phenomena, which are reflected in the goods and services they consume, parallel states of mind as described by Tibetan Buddhist thought. This paper outlines these perspectives and draws implications for the evolution of consumer culture, consciousness and research.

The consumer in postmodern culture is engulfed in a tidal wave of disorienting dilemmas which challenge his/her identity (Firat 1991; Glassner 1989) and lead consumer researchers to ponder how much fluidity in personal experience the individual is capable of handling. Indeed, were we to consider the evolution of mind and consciousness through the history of humanity, we might regard the postmodern sensibility with its subversion of the subject, blurring of boundaries, hyperreality and the like (Baudrillard 1983; Firat 1991; Rosenau 1992) as an inexorable evolutionary step, possibly a 'logical' one. Thus, for example, Gardner (1991) in tracing the pivotal moments in Western intellectual history with respect to the mind, going back to the Greeks, characterizes the most recent view of the mind as "pluralistic" in that different types of intelligence may be found and that they are culturally constructed.

Mind, itself, is implicated in consumption as the 'consuming organ' (Schelling 1986) and the pleasure center where our streams of consciousness, ever dependent on our unconscious states, are melded and projected into various "object relations" with other people and also with goods (Gould 1993). Thus, the evolution of mind may be seen as reflecting a history of projections into the realm of consumption, and consumption in turn may be viewed as the 'experimental field laboratory' for testing and realizing them. In postmodern terms, this evolution is reflective of our having reached the point where every possible fantasy and subject of imagination must be played out in real life (Bell 1976). This idea provides the basis for the major thematic trajectory of this paper: the consumer's imagination often prompts an acting out of what is imagined.

However, to consider this theme and what might be characterized as the 'postmodern consumption experiment', we need to investigate the nature of mind, itself, in terms of its processes as well as its projected contents. In this regard, I will utilize in large part an Asian perspective on mind because for me it is especially compelling both for describing how the mind functions in general and for framing the postmodern mind. In doing so, my aim is to take a step in transforming the mainly Occidental meaning system in which we have framed consumer research to one which is more pluralistic, reflective of more of the world, and integrative of different points of view without being reductive (cf. Barthes 1988). At the same time, I should not be viewed as conflating various Western postmodern and Asian views. Hence to underscore what I said above regarding meaning systems, I am situating postmodernity within a perspective outside of it. Thus, while, for instance, I do draw on pertinent Western sources to illustrate or make a point, my purpose is not to relentlessly compare cultural views per se, but to offer a different view of postmodern phenomena. Furthermore, while Buddhism and postmodern thought stem from different socio-cultural and historical origins, it should be pointed out that Buddhism is a dynamic, vital force that is interacting with Western thought and is not a mere static letter-of-the-law doctrine rigidly fixated on ancient developments. For example, many Westerners have come to it in various forms and use it to frame their lives which they principally live out in Western societies. The forms themselves, especially the outward ones, are evolving as the whole world, both East and West, is. Finally, while Buddhism has religious components in the Western sense of the term, it is also much more and may be seen as a matrix of various psychological, philosophical and scientific doctrines and methods which can be applied to the analysis of everyday life, every bit as much as current Western analysis and often with contrasting but quite useful insights.


Asian yogis, meditators, and shamans have traditionally sought knowledge of the mind not merely as a scholarly, philosophical endeavor but rather as an experiential, phenomenological quest resulting in self-realization (Guenther 1972). Here, I will emphasize and follow in particular the Tibetan Buddhist perspective. This perspective has been previously used to provide a different view of Western consumer behavior and culture (Gould 1991a,b; Ross 1991). I use such a perspective here because of my personal experience (as a Westerner) in studying these views with native Tibetan teachers for many years and in incorporating them existentially as living aspects of my life. It is through this experience that I came to see how postmodern consumption and culture could be explained as a phenomenon of the mind's nature.

According to the famous Tibetan leader and teacher, the Dalai Lama (1991, p. 17), the "ultimate nature of mind is essentially pure." By this he means that all other characteristics of mind such as afflictive emotions are conditioned and can be cleansed through the proper application of various meditative practices. Stated differently, the mind may be seen in essence as empty (Norbu 1987). Thoughts arise from nowhere that can be found, and return to that same empty nowhere, as a search through one's own mind will quickly reveal. Tibetan Buddhists often focus as much or more on such processual aspects of mind in this way as on the actual content of its thoughts. What content does arise is often seen in terms of the metaphor of a mirror (Norbu 1987). The mirror (mind) reflects (and also tends to reflect on) whatever is put in front of it. This continual capacity to reflect is the nature of mind. Attachment to the reflections through our ego/self and/or belief in it leads to our forming various illusory views. The ego or self, according to Buddhists, does not exist in reality but is only the fiction we create about ourselves in relation to our minds' reflections. Moreover, thoughts arise and disappear in quite an independent fashion from one another. It is our conceptualizing that links the thoughts together rather than some intrinsic linkage, which to a Buddhist does not exist.

The usefulness of this perspective for Westerners and particularly for consumer research is the emphasis on experiential aspects of mind and sensation which are dealt with in the context of meditative, yogic and direct sense-perceptual experiences (e.g. Guenther 1972). This perspective differentiates Buddhist from ostensibly similar Western views of mind such as that of the philosopher Richard Rorty (1979) who also uses a mirror metaphor but strictly within a textual context. In relation to work in consumer research which views consumer experience as an important aspect of consideration, the Buddhist nature of mind perspective has the potential to make a major contribution since it embodies millennia of dealing with this sort of experience. For example, through the use of contemplative techniques of following one's thoughts (Gould 1993), researchers could engage consumers in detailing their experiences. Most importantly in terms of postmodern consumer culture, the nature of mind perspective also allows us to consider the difference between the text accounting for an experience (i.e. whether in the form of 'positivist' or an 'interpretive' data) and the experience, itself. In this view, the text is a mere pointer that points to the experience-the finger that points to the moon is not the moon. Postmodern thought tends to focus on the text and stop there.


In order to demonstrate how the postmodern consumption culture, experience and consciousness may be seen in terms of the Buddhist view of the nature of mind, I will now consider some of its themes/elements and show how they may be accounted for in this perspective. In doing so, I would note that I will not enter into the various debates about what is new or not new or unique or not unique about postmodernity or about what constitutes postmodernity at all. Certainly, there are elements of the past in postmodernity (Rosenau 1992) and whether those somehow qualify or disqualify it as something different from other times is not of concern here. Moreover, since postmodern ideologies are themselves contested areas of thought and multiple views, I have taken some views as expressed in social science and in consumer research and used them as a contrast point. If one were to attempt to solve all the debates about postmodern thought here, one could never write any paper at all. Thus, I will not even make that attempt. Instead, I am principally concerned with framing and exploring current (and future) consumption experience which has often been labeled as "postmodern" in terms of the nature of mind perspective.

Let me offer a note on the character of consumption. Consumption is a sphere where postmodern consumers act out many of their fantasies and projections to the degree that they can afford economically, psychologically and socially to do so. Such consumption is informed by the various contested and negotiated aspects of postmodern sensibility that we touched upon above and that we will elaborate below, such as subversion of the self and hyperreality. In this spirit, Leiss (1983, p. 13) characterizes consumption and other related activity as:

a system of 'markers' indicating appropriate forms of behavior for specific, situations, times, and interpersonal relations. A general conclusion is that so long as this is accomplished satisfactorily, it matters little what specific kinds or amounts of goods are employed in the process.

It is also important to note from the nature of mind perspective that the kinds of goods employed are only important as long as we fixate on them, but that the importance of any one good is subject to the changing character of desire. Thus, the process of fixation is more important than the object of fixation, itself.

Subverting the Subject

Postmodern thought has subverted the subject as Rosenau (1992) put it by looking askance at the modern subject who has a distinct personal identity. In fact, from the point of view of some thinkers, the subject or self may be seen as merely a point in language (Rosenau 1992). In consumer research, Firat (1991) similarly noted the decentering of the subject and observed that the subject either may have always been a myth, or on the other hand, may have died with emergence of postmodernity. In any case, Firat notes the loss of individuality and the rendering of the subject as object in the act of consumption brought on by postmodernity. In this regard, Glassner (1989) discerned the conflation of the body with the self in consumers' seeking of health and fitness. The nature of mind perspective accounts for these views and indeed might be seen as finding them both inevitable. In this perspective, there is no ego, or subject of self even to be found at all (Guenther 1972) and in accord with Westerners who situate the subject in language, Buddhists see the subject as a mere label. It is a signifier for something which does not exist in reality. Thus when the actual location of this subject self is sought, it can not be found. In other words, if we look at ourselves, we can ask which part or parts are the self. None are. One's mind is not the self nor one's whole body, nor any gestalt combination. The self is termed as empty of self-existence (i.e. not existing as an entity separate from the environment) although we try to fill that emptiness with a self and related accoutrements (Guenther 1972). Goldman (1987, p. 711) provides a striking parallel in perfume ads:

These ads portray the human capacity for experiencing subjectivity as an empty slate [italics mine]: a condition remedied by application of the appropriate commodity endowed with the appropriate feeling state.

Moreover, while recognizing the manifold processes recognized by the affirmative postmodernists, Buddhists would still find the label of subject, self or ego as problematic and without foundation. In any case, the subject enters the picture of everyday life because in ordinary circumstances there certainly is a physical entity who in the everyday discourse and customary exchange of life needs to be designated. The problem in Buddhist terms is that we develop a narrative around that subject which involves attachment to it and the creation of all sorts of illusions concerning the alleged reality of the self, consciousness of it, and its psychological and material needs.

Thus, the nature of mind perspective seems to indicate that the mind has a capacity for going beyond the limitation of a subject. However, a mind unprepared or unable to do so will frame things within the subject narrative. In the current postmodern consumption environment, we find that the concept and enactment of the subject is problematic and in crisis and transition. Such is possible first because as already noted, at least in the Buddhist view, there is no self or subject to begin with. Second, for most people as described in this view, it is difficult to completely escape the seemingly compelling logic of there being a subject since they seem to embody one from the beginning. Thus, even in postmodernity, the declaration of the death of the subject or the self may be premature for most people. They may see themselves as possessing multiple or part selves (Gould 1993) as does Herman in the TV show "Herman's Head," but still in everyday usage the self as a single subjectivity remains strong. Such consumers are 'postmodern' in perhaps being much more psychologically fluid than in the past but there is no everyday doctrine in the West (in contrast to academic texts) which says there is no self. Indeed, the ego-centeredness of the eighties and beyond suggests we need to reappraise what we mean by postmodern consumers. Thus, as one reviewer of this paper pointed out, perhaps we need to distinguish an analysis of the individual consumer's view from academic theories that develop in such areas as the sociology of knowledge.


Hyperreality is a phenomenon alleged to be a product of the postmodern age in which simulations of 'reality' often in the mass media take a greater or hyped up sense of reality when compared to the actual event itself (Baudrillard 1983). According to Firat (1991), hyperreality in consumption manifests as internalized, emulated roles that consumers pick up from advertising and other media performances (perhaps as consumers have also historically done). For example, Glassner (1989) discusses how the 'fitness consumer' experiences the body within the media context of repeating images. One sees the simulacra of an exercise class on an aerobics video and then strives to replicate oneself in the image of the tape. This reverses the pattern patterns in which representational art imitates reality. Indeed, life imitates art.

In Tibetan Buddhism the imaging of internal images in meditation, based on certain external images of meditational deities (Norbu 1987), is similar to hyperreality. Indeed, these simulacra of the mind seem to be as real as the images of 'real life', just as in hyperreality. To relate to this process, we might think about dreams. Most, if not all of us have experienced dreams in which the images seem to be real. Even narrative stories, which have been the heart of various oral traditions and in which people visualize characters and events, can evoke powerful vivid images that seem real enough. Perhaps what is most different about hyperreality is that what was formerly mostly imaged internally is now externalized in various media and product imagery and forms (e.g. televised events). Similarly, Tibetan Buddhist art in which multitudes of images are portrayed as models of what is to be visualized internally in meditation reflects their externalization. Still, I want to preserve the distinction between externally-oriented hyperreality and the imaged reality of internal meditation, since as an experiencer of both, I regard the latter as more personally self-revealing for the consumer than the former.


Firat (1991, p. 71) notes that in postmodernity, "The consumption life of the consumer is segmented, fragmented into separate moments which are not or only superficially linked." In fact, the disjointed pastiche of images and signs manifested in postmodern consumption (Glassner 1989) may be seen in terms of the transition from the modernist order of synecdoche to the postmodern dominance of metonymy in which signs and images are thrown together randomly (Schleifer 1990). Thus, the order found in earlier periods in which various totalizing systems held sway is not necessary to the functioning of mind, if it is allowed to go beyond cultural restraints. In Buddhism, since thoughts and images are seen to merely arise and fall, their content need not be linked from moment to moment nor need there be any logical meaning to them. In this sense, the postmodern sensibility is working toward the potential 'randomness' of association implied by the nature of mind hypothesis.

Blurring of Polarities and Juxtaposition of Opposites

Glassner (1989) notes that polarities have blurred in postmodern culture and Firat (1991) addresses the juxtaposition of opposites in consumption (e.g. the simultaneous making fun of and promotion of a product in an ad). While such blurring is entailed in the postmodern view of metonymy as embodying the randomness of the presentation of phenomena to the mind (Schleifer 1990), it also reflects the very nature of the mind in which in thought anything can be related to anything else. Indeed, one never knows where one stands and is constantly forced to seek new experiences (Firat 1991). This blurring is positive in the Buddhist view when the mind experiences everything as new, much as a child does without preconception.

Gender Juxtaposition and Blurring. One of the major polarities characteristic of postmodern culture is that of the blurring of gender (Glassner 1989). For instance, Glassner notes how in the fitness consumption culture many distinctions between men and women have been obliterated or resulted in a synthesis of competing antitheses (e.g. the acceptance of formerly masculine muscularity in women combined with a focus on their thinness).

There has also been a recent surge of cross-sexual dress and related behavior (Penaloza 1991) which marks current gender exploration. Such exploration is not that surprising when we consider Buddhist experience, as well as Jung's (1964) anima and the animus. In Tibetan Buddhist practice one may at certain times image oneself as male or female, regardless of one's own gender. Analogously, postmodern consumers who break down gender distinctions are disengaging from conditioned 'fictions' that have limited such behavior before. Yet, most gender distinctions remain in place and thus it is possible for even more extreme fluctuations to occur (e.g. some TV shows have featured men modeling skirts).

Inside and Outside: Mind-Body Blurring. Glassner (1989) notes that the distinction between inside and outside has been blurred in consumer culture. Whereas, for instance, the inner body was previously maintained to provide a glow to the outer body, now the outer body is seen to be at the service of the inner body-a fit outer body is seen as an indicator of good mental health. Indeed, he finds that many believe that spirit can shape matter. Buddhist and other Asian meditational insights presaged this understanding of the mind-body issue by reflecting a non-dualistic view and have influenced the West. Although Buddhists distinguish the body and mind for certain everyday purposes, they ultimately see them as one gestalt. There is no question in Buddhism that our bodies can be shaped by our minds and that the body's actions in turn can shape our mind (e.g. sitting in a certain way can calm our minds).


Postmodernists are anti-representational in that, in general, they find the transference of something into its representation cannot be done without loss of content (Rosenau 1992). This takes perhaps its most striking form in the critiques of language and meaning by deconstructionists in which ultimately nothing can be represented (Rosenau 1992). Buddhists are perhaps even more radical in placing no faith in language, texts, other signs, forms, or concept as a representation of what is going on, except as mere pointers to the direct experience (Norbu 1987). For them, direct experience in terms of one's senses, both outer and inner, and one's conscious awareness without any form of conceptualization is reflective of the ultimate capacity of mind (e.g. viewing what one sees without naming it). Anything else is a reduction. Thus, in this view, even deconstructionists' dissolving of meaning in finding ever new meaning is ultimately a hopeless task since they are searching for it within the infinite realm of concepts. Being cannot be reduced to conceptualization. This is not to refound a self. Nor is it to embrace bleak, hopeless nothingness as Western existentialists might do but instead to blissfully encounter all that there is without concepts to name it.


There are two major areas of implications which can be considered for consumer research: (1) the researcher qua researcher and (2) product-specific domain considerations.

Researcher Qua Researcher

The researcher qua researcher is largely viewed in general postmodern thought as irrelevant, at best, or as a dangerous interloper attempting to find things which are not there (i.e. by making assumptions about things which are beyond the given text; Rosenau 1992). Consumer research as a domain-specific field has yet to come to grips with many of these issues.

Yet, a useful perspective on the researcher qua researcher might be found in the nature of mind perspective which as noted above focuses on the text as a pointer to an experience rather than viewing the text as an end in itself. Thus, the researcher where possible does not distance him or herself from the consumer by interpreting such a text as some foreign piece of verbiage, but instead seeks to attempt to introspectively duplicate that experience or aspects of it in his or her own life. For example, if a consumer reports feeling dizziness when drinking a certain tea, the researcher also might drink it. Several outcomes are possible. The researcher may have a similar experience, although he or she can never exactly duplicate the original consumer's experience. Or he or she may have an entirely different one. This would not falsify the consumer's experience, but would enrich the interpretation and suggest further avenues for thought and research. In such cases, empathy would be especially important as the researcher attempts to imagine or visualize/construct how the consumer feels. The researcher is thus an important mediating instrument since his or her own direct experience has a bearing on how consumption is accounted for. The issue is not so much one of objectivity, subjectivity or a mediating "real" self as it is one of researchers directly and reflexively evaluating consumers' experiences. This implies a meta-text comprised of both researcher and consumer texts and codes. However, beyond texts per se, the researcher as researcher may be said to engage his or her own experience by mirroring the consumer's, either by having a similar experience or by imagining and empathizing with it. Research into this empathy process perhaps along lines suggested by the Buddhist techniques of thought observation and meditation might provide some ways to improve the design and interpretation of consumer research (e.g. Gould 1993).

Product-Specific Domains

In the remaining discussion, we consider the implications of the technological and psychodynamic forces which, mobilized by the imagination inherent in the nature of mind, are underpinning and constantly transforming postmodern consumer culture.

Everyday Technology. Technology is an important aspect of postmodern development. Nonetheless, although postmodern thought is skeptical about technology as a progressive force, hyperreality, for instance, while reflecting basic attributes of the nature of mind, has arisen because of the technological evolution of the media. Thus, new developments in technology provide for consumers' self-exploration in ways that often sharply contrast with their prior experience and create what appear to be new experiential phenomena. These continue the 'experimental' explorations of the nature of mind although there is also a tradeoff with what is replaced. For example, overexposure to mass-mediated hyperreality may deaden our sensibilities to the 'immediate reality' about us. In any case, we can expect that technology through its restructuring of our lives will expand our encounters with various aspects of mind. For example, technology in providing an ease of life may be seen to reflect the externalization of a Tibetan myth in which the 'higher' gods are seen as being able to think of a desired pleasure and manifest it instantly (Gould 1991a). More research is needed to examine how consumers themselves view the tradeoff between internal and external meeting of needs. Such research might lead us to think about the cultural category of "natural" versus "artificial" with implications for about how we view materialism, environmentalism, economic development and cross-cultural diffusion/transference of technology.

Medicine and Biotechnology. Medicine and biotechnology have played perhaps the greatest roles in changing our self outlooks and in engaging in experiments reflective of exploring the nature of mind. For example, contraceptive devices have freed many to explore their sexuality with less overt consequences and therefore to try new behaviors. Similarly, sex change operations have blurred our understanding of the nature of gender and may have influenced the movement toward cross-dressing, androgyny, and the like. These developments may be seen to embody or parallel various Tibetan practices in which one visualizes oneself as a sexual being and also as a being of the opposite sex. These developments and ideas suggest that future research should more deeply investigate the relationship of the mind and body with implications for understanding how the body and body practices are constructed (e.g. what limits if any does our cognitive/cultural construction impose on what our gendered bodies must look like?).

Psychoanalysis, Psychology and Psychotechnology. Freud who might be viewed as the archetypal modernist nonetheless provides a major jumping off point for postmodernism in his subversion of the self, particularly in his construction of the unconscious. Thus, many postmodern consumers have taken to self-conscious exploration which has been reflected in everything from current psychobabble to books and movies that manifest issues of psychological identity. One of the most potent aspects of this 'psychologization' which has affected some consumer segments, is the diffusion of psychotechnologies, such as mediation, yoga and biofeedback (Roberts 1989). Many of these technologies have come from Asia and their effect has been to subvert the self by introducing people to other aspects of the self, some of which seem foreign and/or lead one 'beyond' the self altogether.

I anticipate that such psychotechnological development will continue in future years, decades and centuries as we explore our inner workings. Thus, as we learn to manipulate these processes through such means as new drugs or biofeedback which gets more specific possibly through implants or other means, current postmodern subversion of the self will seem pale as we find new subversions to deal with. I expect that we will engage these as levels of consciousness as found in the nature of mind view, but it will likely take for most consumers an externally rather than an internally driven source to recognize these levels (e.g. virtual reality play versus meditating). Consumer researchers might explore these issues with an aim toward developing insights into how and what mental processes come to manifest in product terms (e.g. do Tibetan and other culture's myths of pleasure presage future virtual realities in which no desire is unmet, at least in apparent terms, and how are such desires prioritized, contested and mediated by cognitive construction within oneself?).


This paper has explored aspects of postmodern culture and thought in relation to the Tibetan Buddhist view of the nature of mind. We have found that postmodern consumption involves a natural evolutionary experiment of consumers with various aspects of the nature of mind as it manifests in consciousness and resulting behaviors. Thus, in the future, we can expect some of the new occurrences emanating from postmodernism to continue to drive consumption and the trajectories of such postmodern themes as subversion of the self and the blurring of opposites to become more pronounced. I would also anticipate for the foreseeable future that the trend toward externalizing what has been previously internal will continue although increasing sensitivity to internalized functioning will result, as well, in the ongoing evolution of the self-conscious human. Only the limit of our imagination provides a bound on what might occur. Acknowledging this, we can stimulate our insight into the dynamics of consumption by considering as equal counterparts to Western thought not only Tibetan Buddhism and its nature of mind perspective, but also the views of other non-Western cultures.


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Stephen J. Gould, Baruch College, The City University of New York


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1994

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