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<nettime> Consumerism: Notes Towards a Reconstruction
Richard Evans on Sat, 26 Sep 1998 00:29:58 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Consumerism: Notes Towards a Reconstruction

The following comments are offered in response to both Bruce Sterling's
striking manifesto and to Mathew Smith's critique, which focused on
Sterling's argument that the mechanism's of consumerism constitute a
possible lens for cultural change.

Consumerism: Notes Towards a Reconstruction
by Richard Evans

I will only wear clothing bereft of visible manufacturing labels.
Occasionally I will wear a t-shirt branded with a band logo, for example,
but this is because of my sense of connection with the band rather than my
sense of connection with a specific product. And while my purchase of a
band t-shirt is influenced by broader social mores regarding identity and
consumption, there is a significant difference between purchasing a t-shirt
by an established band as and purchasing a t-shirt by an emerging band,
with the qualification that the emerging band have not yet been signed to a
record label. In this particular example the emerging band is intending to
use the revenue generated from t-shirt sales to fund the production of a CD
or website which may or may not be intended as a step towards signing a
recording contract with a multi-national label.

While it can be argued that the creation and sale of specific products-
such as t-shirts- constitutes an attempt by the emerging band to circumvent
extant channels of consumption, this argument would only be valid if the
intent was to establish an alternative pattern of consumption. If the long
term goal of the band was to become a multi-million dollar concern with a
multi-national appeal, then the initial sale of t-shirts can be seen as the
attempt to build a base from which to enter extant or mainstream channels
of consumption. If the intent of the band was to establish a source of
revenue which would facilitate the long-term creation, recording and
sharing of music, then the initial sale of t-shirts can be seen as the
attempt to build an alternate channel of consumption. This channel may
cross over into extant channels, such as a self-funded film clip being
aired on MTV, without necessarily compromising either the integrity or
intentions of the band in question. That such a cross-over tends to be
accompanied by the signing of new contracts and the mass-marketing of the
subsequent product, however, reflects attitudes towards wealth in general
as well as the desire to access a wider audience than hitherto possible.
What concerns me is not that such a cross-over takes place, but that it is
seen as the natural extension of underground success.

I have no objection to paying money for a pair of well made trousers, for
example. What I object to is paying for prestige rather than product. It is
possible, for example, for both an individual tailor and a fashion label to
produce and sell poor quality suits, just as it is possible for both to
produce and sell high quality suits. It is also possible that both tailor
and label intend to increase the price of their suits in the light of
increased demand. Furthermore, both tailor and label may engage in
behaviour designed to stimulate demand, such as the purchase of prominent
advertising and display space. The escalation of subsequent production can
take two key forms: the attempt to sell a large number of items to a large
number of people at a comparatively low price, such as Levi jeans, and the
attempt to sell a small number of items to a small number of people at a
comparatively high price, such as Gauliter. It is also possible to sell a
large number of products to a small number of people without that continued
success directly leading to an increase in product price. This model,
however, tends to be the province of those at the periphery of the dominant
consumer market. A tailor, for example, may continue to sell quality
clothes at a reasonable price despite gaining a reputation. It is also
possible that purchasing clothes from such a  tailor may be a mark of
prestige within a given community. What is significant is not that such
clothes become an identifiable marker of belonging but that the tailor does
no increase prices in order to convert prestige into profit. It seems to me
that this is the model of consumption required to effect the social change
envisioned by authors such as Bruce Sterling. It is not consumption which
is being challenged, but the conversion of consumption into a source of
eternally escalating profit. 

I do not see why my pleasure should be dependant upon either the suffering
of another person or avoidable damage to the environment. It is possible to
manufacture clothes without relying on third-world sweatshops, just as it
is possible to build a mode of transportation which neither generates C02
nor constitutes a source of comparable environmental violence. What is
required is a model of consumption which is neither predicated upon
exploitation nor upon generation of eternally escalating profit. Bruce
Sterling's notion of the Viridian Green constitutes one such model- whether
it is the best possible model is, of course, a separate question entirely.
What is significant is that it provides a alternate discourse of
consumption: one which shifts the emphasis from consumer to producer. 

The desire for a convenient mode of transport does not equate with the
desire to own a co2 producing car, for example. It is the products which
are being consumed which are the source of environmental damage, not the
process of consumption as such. The mechanisms of consumption needs to be
severed from the incentive to effect violence on both other people and the
natural environment. That the quest for escalating profit needs to be
replaced is reasonably clear: the challenge lies in constructing an
alternate motive which does not replicate human exploitation on the one
hand, and environmental damage on the other.

Richard Evans (rje {AT} well.com)
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