Tuesday 13 July 2010

Consumer Culture and Postmodernism

This post began life as a book review I wrote as part of a Masters course nearly nine years ago. The book it deals with, Mike Featherstone's Consumer Culture and Postmodernism (1991) is a staple of many an undergraduate reading list and a second edition was brought out in 2006 (Featherstone's preface to the new edition can be read here as a PDF). So while it is dated, thousands of students read it every year.

If I was reviewing this book today I would definitely be more critical and expand the brief concluding paragraph. You can't disagree with Featherstone's new preface that the postmodern moment has since been displaced by other theoretical fashions, but in my opinion the legacy it has left still casts a sizable idealist pall over contemporary social theory. This has done little to help its profile (in as much as it has one) and therefore has further pushed social theory into the gilded ghettoes of academia. I would also avoid the serious misinterpretation of Jean Baudrillard's critique of Marxism (but my marker didn't notice it - in fact it got a big tick, which indicates he didn't understand the self-described "intellectual terrorist" either). And a pigs ear is made of explaining Bourdieu. The review also neglects all mention of consumerism - instead it is collapsed into postmodernism and therefore does not capture Featherstone's contributions to the sociology of consumer culture. Lastly the review tries ever so hard to appear au fait with the fashionable prose of the day, so there are moments where I can't help sounding like a pseud.

Despite this, I think it does a good job of describing what a cadre of British academics thought postmodernism was. So I hope this will be of use to those encountering postmodernism for the first time and are stumped by the unreadability of much of the literature.


Consumer Culture and Postmodernism is a collection of papers published between 1983-90 looking at the intimate relationship between culture and postmodernism. They range from what is meant by 'the postmodern' and its relationship with the city, religion, and the market. Taken together they are united by a three-fold problematic: what is meant by culture, what postmodernism is, and how do we go about constructing a sociology of the postmodern. In this review we will review the arguments Featherstone fields with respect to each of these. I will argue he goes some way to advance the projected sociology of postmodernism but leaves crucial questions highlighted by postmodern social theory unanswered.

Beginning with culture, if we follow
Lash (1990) and argue that modernity was about the differentiation of spheres, disciplines, institutions and other forms of social practice, by way of contrast postmodernity is characterised by a 'de-differentiation' (i.e. the collapse of modern distinctions), then the definition Featherstone operates with throughout the book is characteristically postmodern. He argues that an adequate concept of postmodern culture should be considered as a melding of definitions: of culture traditionally understood in an artistic/aesthetic sense and culture understood anthropologically (the signs and symbols of everyday life). In so doing Featherstone follows Baudrillard's (1975) critique of Marxism, which emphasised the cultural conditions in which material production takes place against the view that relegated culture to an epiphenomenon of the economic base. This criticism is repeated by Featherstone against Jameson (1991) as his Postmodernism tended to pose an immediate link between 'late capitalism' and postmodern culture.

Having cut culture free from reductionist models, Featherstone proceeds to the second face of the problematic: what postmodernism is. For the sake of brevity, there are five broad features to his detailed discussion.

Firstly is the postmodern assault on art. Postmodernism attacks the artificial cultural distance perpetrated by the artistic establishment by denying its separation of 'high art' against other aesthetic forms. Postmodernism thereby destabilises the symbolic hierarchies underpinning it, collapsing the distinction between high and mass culture. An Old Master is as comfortable in an advertising campaign as corporate logos.

Secondly, postmodernism has developed its own aesthetic, one characterised by immediacy and depthlessness. Drawing on
Lyotard (1979) and Lash, discursive regimes of signification have been increasingly displaced by ensembles premised on the figural. The word is giving way to the image.

Third, drawing on Lyotard again, postmodernism is sceptical toward any theoretical attempt at constructing rock-solid epistemological foundations. For Lyotard, the postmodern opposes the universalist metanarratives that dominated philosophy and social theory up to the 1970s and instead privileges the contingent, the local, the specific, and marginalised ways of knowing.

Fourth, building on the collapse of high/mass cultural distinctions and the increasing gravity of the figural, everyday culture is transformed into a conglomerate of images, lacking coherency and linear time. This is a fusion of symptoms
diagnosed by Baudrillard and Jameson. All that exists is a simulation of the real - the 'hyperreal' (Baudrillard), a condition that permits the fragmenting of time into a disjointed series of eternal presents (Jameson). With the loss of the referent, all attempts at coherent narratives are doomed, in their own terms, to failure.

Lastly, with the emphasis firmly on aesthetics, the image and the figural, postmodernism can be said to be complicit with the aestheticisation of everyday life (the sheer quantity of signs in culture, the supernova of art reconfigures life). In this postmodern world, experience (of the aesthetic kind) have become the favoured forms of knowledge.

If these five features outlined by Featherstone offer a crude but adequate snapshot of what the postmodern is, then how did it come about? This is the question any sociology of postmodernism must answer. For Featherstone, the best starting place is the framework provided by
Bourdieu (1979). Bourdieu argued culture can be conceived as an immense collection of overlapping fieds, each one focused around particular interests and involved with the production of its own set of cultural goods. By tracing an individual's membership of fields, Bourdieu argues we can read off a particular lifestyle, which in turn maps onto certain occupational categories. To use an example of Bourdieu's cited by Featherstone, people enjoying access to high rates of economic capital are likely to move in fields where Golf playing, second homes, travel, etc. are exalted. Likewise those with large amounts of cultural capital tend to value 'life experiences', avant-garde art, etc. Those possessing little of either capital tend to favour the products and experiences offered by mass culture. Featherstone however is keen to point out that this example fails to do justice to the social complexities involved, but nevertheless it does have the merit of stating that taste (a crucial component of the postmodern consumer) is not a free floating signifier detached from class.

Using Bourdieu, Featherstone stresses the need for the sociology of postmodernism to pay heed to the symbolic economies of fields, and how they transmit signs and messages, circulate information to the field-specific publics, and how this impacts and conditions these audiences. Within this political economy of symbols and fields, the figure of the intellectual is a crucially important moment for pinpointing the origins of the postmodern:
To understand postmodernism ... we need to approach it on a number of levels. Firstly, it involves changes in the artistic intellectual and academic fields manifest in the competitive struggles in particular fields over the canon. Secondly, it involves changes in the broader cultural sphere in terms of the modes of production, circulation, and dissemination of symbolic goods which can be understood in terms of changes in the power-balances and interdependencies between groups and class fractions on inter- and intra-societal levels. Thirdly, it involves changes in everyday practices and experiences of different groups who as a result of the first and the second set of changes start to use regimes of signification in different ways and develop new means of orientation and identity structures (Featherstone 1991, pp. 62-3)
In the schema used by Featherstone, intellectuals are symbolic specialists engaged in the production of signs. But they do not stand outside of the fields that make up the cultural: the debates, struggles, and discussions between 'inside', and 'inside' and 'outside' intellectuals help shape the production of signs. In Featherstone's account, the emergence of postmodernism in intellectual and academic circles in the 1960s was a discourse formulated by a group of 'outsiders' struggling intellectually and artistically against the establishment. Owing to a number of factors (significantly, the increasing numbers in higher education) these 'outsiders' eventually succeeded in becoming symbolic specialists themselves, thus the theories and aesthetics they carried with them were inscribed on the signs they produce.

The prevalence of postmodern culture cannot be attributed solely to the position intellectuals occupy in symbolic production. Here the 'new petit-bourgeoisie' (or new cultural intermediaries) are of key importance. For Bourdieu, the habitus of this growing class fraction makes them the perfect heralds of postmodernism. As a grouping that does not hold enough capital of either kind to be considered bourgeois, and yet is relatively advantaged
vis the working class, the strata struggles to be more than it is. In the attempt to accumulate economic and cultural capital, the new cultural intermediaries are forced to adopt a learning approach to life, or, a class ethic of (individual) self-improvement. For Featherstone, this makes it the ideal consumer, for in the pursuit of the trappings of cultural capital they become the prime audience for the lifestyle symbols of the intellectuals, which in turn they promote and disseminate via the relatively privileged cultural positions their occupations give them access to.

Featherstone's sketch of the symbolic economy and the place of intellectuals and cultural intermediaries within it form only one level of abstraction in the proposed sociology of postmodernism. As we have already seen, Jameson was criticised for failing to take into account the mediation of (struggles around) symbolic production placed between the late capitalist structure and the postmodern superstructure. With this in mind, Featherstone concludes that increasing circulation of capita, commodities, information, labour and the growth of transnational economic agencies have the potential to generate new cultural spaces that exist in the interstices between national cultures. There's also the growing possibility of a more compressed global culture marked by the fluidity of national identities and new opportunities for cosmopolitan tolerances and mutual respect. Aware however of the dialectic of contemporary capitalism, his remarks are qualified by noting these are not foregone conclusions.

As a contribution to the sociology of postmodernism,
Consumer Culture and Postmodernism synthesises insights from Bourdieu, Baudrillard, Lyotard and Jameson that could drive a renewed research agenda. However, there remains a potential lacunae in Featherstone and others who've accepted the claim that we live in postmodern times. If Lyotard's claim that metanarrativity has collapsed and we're having to construct a new paradigm out of the wreckage of 'modern' sociology, is postmodernism itself a new metanarrative, or a knowledge specific to the position of a particular kind of intellectual?


Rash Human said...

I remember in my post-grad days an argument somewhere that stated that media workers form part of a 'creative class' (a new class) as the product they produce is not tangible in a physical sense.

Next Left said...

Located within a materialist framework I think some postmodern theory and research has useful insights to offer into recent changes in political subjectivities.

I think Graham Taylor's recent book argues this case well. My comments on his book are here:


Dave said...


As someone who had his higher education in those far off days before all this bollox was current, can you recommend a 200 page or so book that will bring me up to speed on PoMo?

Dave O

Phil said...

Easier said than done, Dave. I've not read one book that offers a decent intro to all aspects of pomo. That said I really liked Postmodernism for Beginners by Appignanesi and Zarate (it trades under the name Introducing Postmodernism these days) back in the day. Callinicos's Against Postmodernism, though dated, is a good intro and critique of most of the French post-structuralist scene. There's a chapter in there on Habermas too who is very much not a pomo thinker but has tried to think through some of the social changes associated with postmodernism.

Boab said...


How about postmodernism in 350 words?

In the 1960s a group of academics, growing tired of trying to make it in their chosen fields and unable to come up with a truly original thought, had a smashing idea; create a new field where the field itself was the new thought, but nobody could really know or be allowed to discover, what that new thought was, or if there was really a new thought there at all.

If they were successful in doing so, they would be on the gravy train for life.

Creating this new field would be like creating a new language. But that would be difficult, and why bother? Someone had already invented Elvish and Klingon. Why not take existing languages and add new vocabularies or, for even better obfuscation, add new meanings to existing lexical items, but, and here’s the keystone; don’t add them to the dictionary. Only allow access through the new priesthood, the academics.

“Lorsqu'il ya ambiguïté, il ya la permanence, où il ya occupation, il est en laiton,” said Baudrillard.

But what about a new grammar? Not needed. Existing grammar had, in its infinite wisdom, and without prejudice, to those who could see it, or even, without prejudice to those who could see it, already provided the solution.

The relative clause, both defining and non-defining, where the judicial positioning of a single comma could result in more Phd grant applications than any sociology department could have previously dreamed. Add multiple clauses to sentences with more than one subject and / or object and you reach levels of complexity even the FBI could not penetrate.

When finished, they sat back to admire this thing of beauty. Language, the defining skill of mankind, the basis of meaningful communication, had been transformed into a means of obfuscation in order to create a new academic discipline whose sole purpose was the continued existence of that discipline. It served no other master than itself; for only in true meaninglessness can you find the true meaning of life.

“But isn’t that complete bollocks?” said the undergraduate.
His professor thought for a second, before asking “What do you say to a sociologist without a Phd?”
“I don’t know,” said the student.
“Can I have a large fries with that,” said his professor.