Ai Don’T Know What I Feel Until I Hear What I Say@ Poststructuralist Perspectives on Reality &Amp; Freedom


Richard Elliott (1998) ,"Ai Don’T Know What I Feel Until I Hear What I Say@ Poststructuralist Perspectives on Reality &Amp; Freedom", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Basil G. Englis and Anna Olofsson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 259-260.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 259-260


Richard Elliott, University of Oxford, U.K.


Poststructuralist approaches to reality are languacentric, a perspective which views consciousness as being constituted by discourse, and discourse itself as not neutral but the site of competing and conflicting accounts. However, the individual "assumes that she is the author of the discourse which she is speaking, and thinks as if she were in control of meaning" (Weeden, 1997). Derrida emphasises the indeterminacy of meaning and the inherent instability of language, as all signs are connected to and defined by other signs and the appearance of a meaning external to the signifying system is merely an illusion. In this view the very sense of a self existing outside of language and using language as a tool is itself an illusion: "Language speaks through human beings, as much as they speak it."


Language performs a variety of functions in the world and does not just represent it, for as Foucault (1972) pointed out, we are only able to think within the constraints of discourse. Discourse is defined here as a system of statements that constructs an object, supports institutions, reproduces power relations and has ideological effects (Parker, 1990). But all discourses contain the sediment of social structure and social practices which are to a large extent inescapable and thus the individual is the subject of a discursive field which is historically and socially located. The theory of hegemony (Gramsci, 1971) suggests that the mass media are able to control the consciousness of thepowerless in the population to such an extent that they consider their situation to be #self-evidently natural.’ Hegemony results in "a sense of absolute, because experienced, reality beyond which it is very difficult for most members of the society to move, in most areas of their lives." (Williams, 1977).


Lacan (1977) described two orders of meaning which together construct the self, the imaginary and the symbolic, where the development of language is associated with a move from the unconscious world of the imaginary to the rational world of the symbolic order. There is potential for "slippage" between these two orders of meaning, with a regression to the unconscious order of the imaginary where desire for the unobtainable comfort of the perfect mother holds sway. Thus the development of self and identity through the acquisition of language is founded on absence or loss. The unconscious is "structured like a language" and thus words convey multiple meanings and can signify something quite different from their rational meaning.


The extent to which we can have access to essential feelings is challenged by the social constructionist theory of emotions (Harre, 1986) views emotions not as natural responses elicited by natural features in a situation, but as sociocultural constructions which serve a situated social function, so that the meaning of an emotion is located within the sociocultural system in which it is culturally appropriate. But despite their situational contingency, emotions may be law-like in their effect upon us. The "law of apparent reality" states that once events are subjectively perceived to be real, often through imagination and fantasy, then the emotional responses overwhelm objective evidence; and the "law of closure" proposes that emotions are blind to reason and that they "know no probabilities...they do not weigh likelihoods." (Fridja, 1988).

Bourdieu (1984) suggests that the basic element in the forming of preference may not be a positive emotional response but a negative one, not to choose that we like most but to reject those that we most dislike. This "refusal of other tastes" is a powerful force: "disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance (sick-making) of the tastes of others." The rejection of other people’s lifestyles may be one of the strongest barriers between social classes. When they have to be justified, tastes are asserted purely negatively; and taste is the basis "of all that one hasBpeople and thingsBand all that one is for others, whereby one classifies oneself and is classified by others."


Thus even our emotions may be constructed by fields of discourse which limit what we can think and even what we can feel, for we have difficulty in describing emotional processes, even though we "may know but can only speak of incompletely" (Polanyi, 1967). We may be unable to step outside our sociocultural location even through the adoption of an ironic perspective. All our taken for granted understandings have no transcendent foundations but are constructed from social interactions, and the real collapses into language. Yet limited freedom may be allowed to the individual through consumption choices through which the individual must take responsibility to invent and consciously create a self-identity. Through existential consumption (Elliott, 1997) the freedom to create new meanngs for goods can be used for collective and individual resistance against the imposed meanings of the dominant cultural categories, particularly through the choice of style and the use of "bricolage" tactics. We may dismiss an individual’s claim to be making conscious choices about consumption as "false consciousness" but the freedom of practical existentialism is authentic, even if it is constrained by inequalities in the economic system and by ideological hegemony.


Bourdieu, P. (1984), Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. (Translated by R. Nice), London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Elliott, R. (1997), Existential Consumption & Irrational Desire, European Journal of Marketing, 34, 4, 285-296.

Foucault, M . (1972), The Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Tavistock.

Frijda, N. H. (1988), The Laws of Emotion. American Psychologist, 43, 5, 349-358.

Garmsci, A. (1971), Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Harre, R., (ed.) (1986), The Social Construction of Emotions. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Lacan, J. (1977), Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. A. Sheridan. London: Tavistock

Parker, I. (1990), Discourse: definitions and contradictions. Philosophical Psychology, 3, 2, 189-204.

Polanyi, M. (1967), The Tacit Dimension. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Weeden, C. (1987), Feminist Practice & Poststructuralist Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Williams, R. (1977), Marxism and Literature. London: Oxford University Press.



Richard Elliott, University of Oxford, U.K.


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998

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