Consuming Life, Zygmunt Bauman – A Summary of Chapter 3

Chapter Three: Consumerist Culture

A brief summary of chapter three, mostly just paraphrased, and basically just my own notes, comments and links to follow!

An influential, widely read and respected fashion handbook, edited by a highly prestigious journal for the autumn–winter 2005 season, offered ‘half a dozen key looks’ ‘for the coming months’ ‘that will put you ahead of the style pack’. This promise was aptly, skilfully calculated to catch the attention: and very skilfully indeed, since in a brief, crisp sentence it managed to address all or almost all anxious concerns and urges bred by the society of consumers and born of consuming life.

In order to belong You have to metonymically identify with the pack, it is not simply enough to follow its rules/ procedures (belonging is not a given!)

The only way to guarantee security is to stay ahead of the pack!
The reference to ‘staying ahead’ is a precaution against the danger of overlooking the moment when the current emblems of ‘belonging’ go out of circulation.
Fashion items come with a use by date – however great your gain from promptly following the call, the gain won’t last forever. In the liquid modern world, slowness means social death. This chimes with pointillist time.
Thirdly you have to make a choice, but you have only a limited range of products to choose from and you have no control over the range of choices!

The major difference which sets consumerist society apart from its productivist predecessor seems to be the reversal of the values attached respectively to duration and transience – consumer society rests on the denial of the values of procrastination and deferred gratification.

The ‘consumerist syndrome’ is all about speed, excess and waste – not only do we rush to acquire things, but we rush to get rid of them too, and because there are so many choices and insecurities, it is rational to hedge your bets (buy three outfits, and only ever where two of them for example).

A consumer society cannot but be a society of excess and profligacy

There are two basic ideas about why society is necessary:

Firstly the Dukheimian/ Hobbesian idea that it is necessary to prevent war

Secondly the Levinas/ Logstrop – that it is necessary in order to make the unconditional conditional (through establishing laws).

The classic scholars worried that if society disappeared we would descend into a war of all against all or become overwhelmed with a sense of moral responsibility but this has not happened because we are taught that now we only need have responsibility for ourselves, not for others.

However, the concerns of previous sociologists assumed that there would be some sense of the social in people’s minds – there isn’t any more…the advent of consumerism has sapped the credibility of both cases – each in a different way, though for the same reason – the expanding process of the dismantling the once comprehensive system of normative regulation. Ever larger chunks of human conduct have been released from explicitly social patterning, supervision and policing, relegating an ever larger set of previously socialized responsibilities back to the responsibility of individual men and women.

As Pierre Bourdieu signalled as long as two decades ago, coercion has by and large been replaced by stimulation, the once obligatory patterns of conduct (duty) by seduction, the policing of behaviour by PR and advertising, and normative regulation by the arousal of new needs and desires.

An intensely and extensively cultivated sentiment of urgency provides individuals and institutions alike with illusionary, though nevertheless quite effective, relief in their struggles to alleviate the potentially devastating consequences of the agonies of choice endemic in the condition of consumer freedom.

Following Aubert….Permanent busyness, with one urgency following another, gives the security of a ‘full life’ or a ‘successful career’, sole proofs of self-assertion in a world from which all references to the ‘beyond’ are absent…. When people take action, they think short-term – of things to be done immediately or in the very near future . . . all too often, action is only an escape from the self, a remedy for the anguish… and the deeper one sinks into the urgency of an immediate task, the further away the anguish stays.

An additional benefit of declaring a constant state if emergency is that  it makes people easier to manage – where work is concerned asset stripping and downsizing keep people in a constant state of needing to be updating their skills sets to look for work.


In a society of consumers and in an era when ‘life politics’ is replacing the Politics that once boasted a capital ‘P’, the true ‘economic cycle’, the one that truly keeps the economy going, is the ‘buy it, enjoy it, chuck it out’ cycle.

The life of a consumer, the consuming life, is not about acquiring and possessing. It is not even about getting rid of what was acquired the day before yesterday and proudly paraded a day later. It is instead, first and foremost, about being on the move.

If the ethical principle of the producing life was the delay of gratification, then the ethical guideline of the consuming life has to be to avoid staying satisfied. For a kind of society which proclaims customer satisfaction to be its sole motive and paramount purpose, a satisfied consumer is neither motive nor purpose – but the most terrifying menace.

Not being satisfied with what one has is crucial for the society of consumers – profit depends on it – and stigma is attached to those who settle for fixed needs or those who sit still, or are happy with who they are – such people are stigmatised as ‘flawed consumers’.

Consumers should be constantly striving to be someone better, or to be someone else altogether, they should always be on the move – and afraid of boredom and stagnation; and to be a good consumer, forgetting is as important as moving on.

Despite consumerism being dressed up as freedom… what is not allowed is the freedom to not change.

Pointillist time is uniquely suited to separating us from the past and helping us forget the future – part of the experience is thus life lived as ‘serial births’ – of life as an unending string of ‘new beginnings’

Lesław Hostyn ski, an insightful analyst of the values of consumer culture, has listed and described a long series of stratagems deployed in the marketing of consumer goods in order to discourage the young (and ever younger) adepts of consumerism from developing a long-term attachment to anything they buy and enjoy.

One such strategy is the replace the old barbie doll scheme through which Mattel promised young consumers they would sell them the next Barbie at a discount if they brought their currently used specimen back to the shop once it was ‘used up’…. Exchanging one Barbie doll for a ‘new and improved’ one leads to a life of liaisons and partnerships shaped and lived after a pattern of rent-purchase.

As Pascal Lardellier suggests, the ‘senti- mental logic’ tends to become ever more saliently consumerist: it is aimed at the reduction of all sorts of risks, the categorization of the items searched for, an effort to define precisely the features of the sought-after partner that can be deemed adequate to the aspirations of the searcher. The underlying conviction is that it is possible to compose the object of love from a number of clearly specified and measurable physical and social qualities and character traits.

Following Erikson…. pointillism  may well be the most salient feature of our times – the desire to forget the past, not be constrained by it, and experience everything in a lifetime – in a carpe diem way, but of course there is not enough time to experience everything and hence…we live in a tyrannical situation.
The individual consequences of extreme hurriedness are overwhelming: both the past and the future as mental categories are threatened by the tyranny of the moment . . . Even the ‘here and now’ is threatened since the next moment comes so quickly that it becomes difficult to live in the present.

A further consequence, examined ny Elzbieta Tarkowska, a prominent chronosociologist, has developed the concept of ‘synchronic humans’, who ‘live solely in the present’ and who ‘pay no attention to past experience or future consequences of their actions’, they live in a presentist culture – a culture which breeds humans who lack commitment to each other.

(As outlined in ‘Liquid Love’) Human bonds nowadays tend to be viewed – with a mixture of rejoicing and anxiety – as frail, easily falling apart and as easy to be broken as they are to tie.

Freedom from commitment is the most valued attribute of the typical relationship in consumer society, freedom to be able to eject a stale relationship is more important than committing.

Allowing another individual into your sphere of intimacy has always been anxiety inducing because others are inherently unpredictable – however modern relationships are different because the principle source of anxiety today pertaining to relationships is the fear of missing out on other relationships – the better highs one might be experiencing with new partners compared to the drudgery of committing to one person forever.

Anxieties no longer arise because of the other they arise because of the possibility of not having to be committed, which means relationships today are constantly judged against what other joys they are preventing us from experiencing (experienced automatically as a kind of opportunity cost).
The internet is the perfect medium for the intimate relationship in consumer society – because it takes little effort to forge relationships and even less to cut them off, the later being achievable at the click of a button.

Electronic (non face to face) relationships allow for a quick cutting off ’emotional ties’ – this ability to cut off ties quickly is what people value the most – and it is this that is the perfect training for life in a market-mediated consumer society – where the disposability of things is valued more highly than their acquisition.

Numerous members of the knowledge classes (who spend a lot of time online) have suggested that the internet offers a viable alternative to the traditional institutions of democracy, which people seem to be decreasingly interested in.

However, political communication online tends to take the form of shouting about one’s virtues – stating that you are for or against something rather than doing anything about it and forming a movement for change – Political Communication online has become fetishised – It enables people to feel as if they are doing something when in fact they are not.

In reality, the internet is an unlimited space which soaks up dissent into a stagnant pool, where dissent is recycled in the knowledge economy of forgetting, recycled as soundbites, while real liquid modern politics is able to go on largely unchallenged.

Bush and Blair were still able to go to war despite significant amounts of virtual protest. The internet sets up a chasm between real politics and citizens (if you can still call them that!)

In the liquid modern society of consumers no identities are gifts at birth, none is ‘given’, let alone given once and for all and in a secure fashion. Identities are projects: tasks yet to be undertaken, diligently performed and seen through to infinitely remote completion.
Even in the case of those identities that pretend and/or are supposed to be ‘given’ and non-negotiable (such as class/ sex/ ethnicity), the obligation to undertake an individual effort to appropriate them and then struggle daily to hold on to them is presented and perceived as the principal requirement and indispensable condition of their ‘givenness’.

Identity is a sentence to  lifelong hard labour. Remember that consumers are driven by the need to ‘commoditize’ themselves – remake themselves into attractive commodities

Two things alleviate the constant stress of having to continually remake oneself… Cloakroom Communities – which are phantom communities where one subjectively feels like one belongs just by being amongst others and Fixed Term communities – where some kind of collective activity takes place but one is free to leave with no consequence.

Both types of community have two things in common – firstly, the primary means whereby you indicate your belonging is through shopping – for products which display that you are part of the group, and secondly there is the absolute right to exit without penalty. In both of these communities the idea of the integrated self is a myth.

It seems as if the only types of identity community are temporary and based on buying in and then discarding, identities are short lived and experiential – you adorn yourself with that which is necessary and invest short term into the moment – then you move on.

The problem with all of the above is that (A) you’ll wake up with the same old self after every session, only older and poorer after every such session, and (B) this means of constructing and expressing the self denies everyone else recognition – because you can always exit at the drop of a hat.

It is as if we have constructed a social world where the only means of belonging comes with an in-price (through consumption) and will only ever last for the short-term – so you have to continually put a lot of effort into getting ready to take part in these short-term (fictitious communities) (NB – He doesn’t actually give any examples of these communities!). Identities constructed online are carnival identities – to be taken up temporarily and discarded whenever one is bored with them….

The ‘community’ of internauts seeking substitute recognition does not require the chore of socializing and is thereby relatively free from risk, that notorious and widely feared bane of the offline battles for recognition. In the internet-mediated identification game, the Other is, so to speak, disarmed and detoxified. The Other is reduced by the internaut to what really counts: to the status of the instrument of one’s own self-endorsement.

All of this comes from being brought up in Pointillist Time —

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