Sunday, September 9, 2007

Ch. 7 Consumption in Everyday Life

Before I get started I just want to point out that in my 'Storey book' (the new version), the title has the word 'EVERYDAY' spelled as one word and in the page headings that follow in the chapter the, 'EVERYDAY' is split into, 'EVERY' and 'DAY'. As much as my entry could be about this Derridean moment, I'll reserve it for another discussion maybe.

Consumption in Everyday Life : Abstract
by Matt Dewey

The chapter on consumption stems from the the overall conception of a culture as having a material base and is located in a sense of consumables and the processes of consumption as texts. Given that Storey positions all things cultural as texts allows him to then discuss consumption of texts on the level of a tension between objective (political) and subjective (theoretical) interpretations. He states that cultural studies is concerned with consumption for two reasons: a) the plurality of meanings of a text as it is negotiated over time and use (theoretical); b) that these texts are made and remade by consumers in the practices of the ‘everyday’ (political).

In response to what Storey calls the, ‘pessimistic elitism’, of more critical and structuralist cultural studies, culture in his mind should view texts and their consumption as “production in use” (pg. 133), that there is no set place for the actual meaning of a text to be found but that it should be studied as a process and in its processes of continual meaning formation. Storey goes on to discuss the duality in consumption through studies on youth subcultures, fan cultures and shopping.

Subcultural Consumption

Through an analysis of studies of youth subcultures in working class areas of London (Cohen) Storey, states that youth in subcultures are searching for a unity in affluence promised by their parents working class ethic, and an acceptance from the very consumer based society that rejects them. Therefore, in practice, subcultures like, punks and mods, are an example of , “...consumption at its most discriminating. Through a process of ‘bricolage’, subcultures appropriate for their own purposes and meanings the commodities commercially provided... commodities are rearticulated to produce oppositional meanings “ (pg. 135). By a process of essentially reinventing the meaning of texts, subcultures resist the generalization and assimilation that constitutes mass consumption. It is this negotiation, between positions in society(class) and the rewriting of cultural products that embodies the importance of Storey’s two reasons to the study of consumption.

Fan Culture

Storey goes on the analyze fan culture. While subculture youths rewrite texts to embody their conceptual displacement outside of popular culture, fan culture practices embrace particular texts in order to create additional, supplemental, or intensified versions of those texts. Fan cultures surrounding a TV show would engage in consumption, creation, and recreation of different aspects of text, be it characters, themes, genres, in order to develop specialized and hypostatized understandings of the original or related text. The significance of Fan culture is the process of production and appropriation that lead to readings/ consumptions(141) that are entirely separate text. Fans, not unlike subcultural youths, create communities of people who share a common interest in recreating alternative understandings and uses of the ‘popular’ or generally accepted meaning of products.


Storey suggests that in looking at shopping from a cultural studies perspective we would find that it is not simply an activity that culminates in the purchasing of a product. Though phenomena such as the department store once served the submissive tastes of the bourgeois, today the act of shopping can serve a number of different social functions such as exercise, interaction with others, employment, and immediate and temporary shelter for the weather stricken or homeless.

To conclude the article description, Storey in general seems to want us to not automatically assume that we are all mindlessly consuming products because of some unseen productive evil. Though we should not forget that there are motive behind advertising and 2-for-one sales, consumption is more nuanced and creative in culture than merely supportive for economic systems. It is a way to share interests and create new ones.


“... the problem of capitalism is not production, but consumption”
- Sut Jhally, Advertising and the End of the World (1998)

Although I appreciate Storey’s insistence on the theoretical and political implications in the study of consumption I can’t help but wonder if Storey's two reasons are actual the same, or so incorporated and constitutive of each other that their separation is merely academic. I do, I admit, have problems with seeing how plurality of meanings of texts are separate from the process of creation and recreation of those meanings. It could be as well that my misunderstanding doesn’t even matter or that the two reasons were never placed in dialectical opposition. Storey does though seem to disconnect conceptually another issue of consumption by implying that in order to determine the extent of social control, “requires vigilance and attention to details of the active relations between production and consumption”(133). I thought at first I was making too big a deal out of it but as I read on, it seems particularly important for Storey that the idea of consumption lie evenly outside the process of production (structural) as it does inside in order for his two reasons to be separately considered. I’m not so sure that his analysis frees consumption from structure as much as he aims to.

Though of course the processes of producing a product are mechanically different from the act of buying the product in a store, they are bound intrinsically and inseperably, specifically the United States, to the narrative of capitalism. The relationship between production and consumption is not arbitrary but explicit. The idea that subcultural youth negotiate class issues through recreating the meaning of the products they consume suggest a non- negotiation, or an essential acceptance and adherence, to the logic and promise of consumption. Whether one is ‘discriminately consuming’ or consuming through depression the orientation to material is still complete. This leads me to ask as I was reading the chapter at what point in the discussion of texts and their negotiation is there not a reinforcement or apology for the structure that guides it? Where then, does the power that causes class struggle or forms the hegemony of a mass culture suddenly become innocuous?

If consumption was arbitrary, if for most people it was a leisure activity of whim, as it seems to be for the ‘fan culture’, we could insist that it be studied from a purely humanistic interactive perspective. But this sort of consuming is privileged; Walmart does so well not because it is a cultural mecca of fashion, but because its demographic is the poor and middle class which make up a majority of the population. Consumption is specifically class oriented and class is specifically structural.

The underline idea Storey is discussing in the negotiation of consumption is the negotiation of identity or the formation of it. The idea of identity in consumer goods is a specific articulation of advertising but has its historical roots in the separation of classes. Those who can afford to be discriminating have the ability to pick and choose, have access to this market or that, wear purple instead of green; access and accumulation to such goods defined the bourgeois ethic. To return to the discussion of youth subcultures, punk lost its identity or negotiation with popular culture when specific stores or agents began to cater to their ‘style’ (the idea of 'Style' being an ‘acceptance of’ or ‘hierarchy’ according Stuart Ewen in All Consuming Images, 1988). It is in this idea of identity that consumption is acutely structural as well.

I understand that this places me specifically in the structuralist camp. It could also be my educational background in the study of Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and Habermas (The Frankfurt School), that has made me acute to accusation of elitism that they have often received. I believe Storey short cuts the importance of the Frankfurt School's influence in the shaping of his own analysis and in the Birmingham experience in general. For instance, his discussion of appropriation he takes from Hebdige (born in 1951), is the same discussion Adorno and Horkheimer had in the, Dialectic of Enlightenment , printed in 1944. Of course this discussion could be traced through Marx and beyond. Adorno (from Marx) reinforces the analysis that it is capitalism that breeds class struggle and that through the logic of the market, or in the problem of consumption, laws, policies, suburbs and educations are created and used to negotiate meaning.

Of course this is not an effort to decide who said what first, but to show for instance that the analysis that comes from the Frankfurt School comes specifically out of resistance to Nazi fascism. If there is an aura of elitism in discussions of the power of culture and structure, those accusation must be in an involved historical perspective. It may seem just as hierarchical to place cultural welfare in the hands of ‘discriminating consumers’.

We may now have to acknowledge, given the extent and speed of global capital, the interminable existence of a consumptive based society. As out-sourcing continues, we will soon no longer produce anything in this country we consume. This separation is not negotiated (in public) but structural. I myself consume many things that would be considered privileged in another context (such as Darfur). I consume free range and recyclables because I can afford to (at the beginning of the month) and can choose to blur the distinctions between negotiated meanings of consumables as art or identity. But this is an affordance of structure and not negotiation.

But this discussion is not to say that Storey is not aware of his privilege either. His effort I believe is to find the particular moments in culture where we are, conceptually at least, free to self actuate. If we are always and continually victims of structure our actualization is always in service of the state or multinational corporation. His discussion of how fan cultures “rereading” (146) of texts frees their attention from ‘what will happen’ to ‘ how things happen’ is particularly convincing for what it may bring to the pedagogy of media literacy, even for the possibilities of media production.


Jenny said...

When I was reading your summary of "fan culture" it got me thinking about my project for this class on "Flavor of Love." VH1 has V-Spot on their website, a place where they host not seen on tv videos and other discussion forums. I realize that fan culture would generally come from the fans but do you think that VH1 making this available is still representative of fan culture. After all, if it weren't for the fans they wouldn't have a need for V- Spot in the first place...

tom peele said...

I think it's definitely representative of fan culture even if (and I'm not saying that this is the case, but maybe) the site's purpose is to produce fan culture.

Diane said...

Exactly. I think that a lot of marketing goes into making people think that they've always wanted something that they previously had no knowledge of. A lot of those cable channels (MTV comes to mind) are trying to sell a lifestyle or a complete, packaged image. I don't necessarily think it's fan culture if the company is the one making it available. If V-Spot was an independent site ran and produced by fans, that would be different. The question is whether V-Spot was created and cultivated for the fan culture or if it was created in response to an existing fan culture that demanded it. Perhaps a little of both?