Category Archives: Book reviews, summaries and excerpts

Sociological Perspectives on Advertising

A brief summary of pages of 27-32 of Joel Stillerman’s ‘Sociology of Consumption’: The Effects of Advertising and Branding on Consumers (with comments!).

The theories covered in this section include:

The Manipulation Thesis

(1) This originated with Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay ‘the culture industry’ which was inspired by their observations of 1930s Hollywood and the way the Nazis used propaganda.

The basic idea is that advertising manipulates consumers into buying goods. Mass entertainment is produced in a similar way as mass produced auto-mobiles and other products. Adorno and Horkheimer viewed advertising as standardised, artless and manipulative. Products offered people cheap thrills which provided them with compensatory pleasures after a day at a dissatisfying job. Playing to consumers’ emotional vulnerability, music, film and advertising offered instant gratification without true satisfaction while helping them to tolerate unacceptable working conditions.

In short, the culture industry was a form mass manipulation which helped to keep the working masses happy in order to discourage them from protesting about poor wages and working conditions.

A long line of scholars has followed this basic idea – through with different foci –

(2) Kenneth Galbraith argued advertising played the same function of manipulation but rather than seducing the masses into political apathy served the function of convincing shoppers to buy new goods and keep industry profitable.

(3) Jean Baudrillard argues advertising helps businesses solve the ‘realisation problem’ – namely how to sell the increasing number of goods which are produced as Capitalism ‘evolves’. However, Baudrillard accords advertising a more central role in changing our culture. He argues that rather than focussing on the functional properties of a good advertising articulates their emotional or symbolic properties, thereby unleashing an endless process of consumption that has lost its connection to exchange and only reflects a symbolic system which classifies goods into different categories.

Furthermore, goods are no longer appealing because of their individual properties, consumers only recognise them as part of a particular style: in a particular living room set, combined with certain objects and colour combinations for example.

As a result, for Baudrillard, advertising has overtaken our culture and we are trapped in a world of symbols and the incessant need to consume.

(4) More recent analysis focuses on the emotional aspect of advertising – how advertising attempts to link particular emotions and sex to certain products (e.g. Zukin 04 and Smart 10)

(5) Other analysis focuses on how society is increasingly organised around consumption rather than work and thus individuals are expected to consume at a certain level or else face rejection by their peers (Bauman 2007).

Comments

I’M broadly sympathetic to Manipulation Theory in that I believe we can distinguish between ‘basic’ and ‘false’ needs and the primary function of advertising is to manipulate people into buying shit they don’t simply need.

Taking all of the above together I think the primary function of advertising is that it reinforces a world-view in which it’s it’s normal to shop, it’s normal to consume at a historically high level, it’s normal to link happy states to products (or rather sets of products in Baudrillard”s case), it’s normal to construct your very identity using consumption, and it’s normal to spend a lot of time alone and with others, engaged in consumption.

In short the effect of advertising is to convince us that consuming is a normal part of everyday life which should not be questioned, and we are right to assume that shopping as a strategy can provide us with individual and collective emotional fulfilment as human beings.

However, I don’t actually think advertising is necessary to a high consumption society – the various reasons outlined in this post explain the emergence of a high consumption society – we’d probably consume at similarly historically high levels without advertising – advertising exists because of surplus production – broadcast by producers to get our attention amidst a whole load of other producers churning out what is essentially the same shit-we-don’t need.

The other bit of manipulation theory I agree with is that advertising has a sort of ideological function – it masks the truth of its existence and the truth about unnecessary consumption which is as follows

(a) Advertising primarily exists to help the capitalist class sell the shit they produce.

(b) Despite what advertising tells us about this or that shit we really don’t need any of it.

(c) If we ‘buy into’ the messages of the advertisers (which are a bunch of lies) we’re being stupid/ shallow

(d) In the case of Bauman – if we pursue happiness through consumerism, we’re probably going to end up being miserable in the long run.

(e) We don’t freely choose to consume, we are buffeted into it by social and economic pressures (meaningless work, pestering kids (who have been manipulated by advertisers), busy-hurried lives, the strange desire to stand-out) and the causes of these pressures-to-consume need to be put under investigation but the very act of consuming at a high level prevents us from doing so, and advertising helps in this.

(f) There are more effective ways to pursue happiness which aren’t about consumption – producing things, and ‘sprituality’ being the two most obvious.

‘Active Theories of Consumption’

Having outlined the above five aspects of Manipulation Theory, Stillerman now turns to more active approaches.

(1) Other scholars have criticised the manipulation thesis. Douglas and Isherwood (1996) argue that goods are a ‘communication system’ and that most of our consumption is ritualistic. There are essentially three reasons we consume

Firstly – we consume to remain connected with others and stay involved in the ‘information system’.

Secondly – people can also find their place within the group and mark of stages in the life cycle through engaging in consumption rituals.

Thirdly – consumption is also about boundary maintenance – the wealthy try to monopolise certain events and goods, the middle class try to gain access to them and the working classes try to maintain their consumption at a certain level.

COMMENT – All of this is true – we consume actively, BUT – the frame within which we consume has changed radically over the last few decades – the pace of consumption and overall level of consumption have increased, and so (inevitable) has the amount of choosing people have to do – as a result, we are devoting more and more time to keeping up with consuming… Take the average cost of weddings, houses and raising children increasing for example. Also, people may well consume actively in various ‘neo-tribes’ but the fact that this is the norm, also means more time has to be devoted to consumption – THUS society has made us into consumers, this is the thing I find most interesting, focussing on HOW people consume once they have been made into consumers just isn’t interesting….!

(2) Colin Campbell (2005) rejects the manipulation thesis for two reasons – first, he argues that this thesis distinguishes ‘needs’ from ‘desires’ but there is no easy way to know what ‘basic needs’ are because needs are always cultural defined in all societies (No they are not – food, water, shelter, clothing for warmth, security, this is straight up post-modern BS). Second, he argues that advertising tries to appeal to consumers in order to convince them to make a purchase, rather than manipulating them. (OK – I accept the fact that consumer are more active, but I’d like to see Cambell distinguish between the act of manipulation and appeal).

(3) Slater (1997) rejects the idea that consumers are cultural dopes, and argues that they buy products in response to their own individual or cultural needs and dispositions.

(4) DeCerteau (1984), Fiske (2000) and Miller (1987) also argue that consumers are more active – they use goods in their own ways, often appropriate goods and creatively recontextualise the meanings of them in ways which are specific to their own live (this sounds like Transformationalism and cultural hybridity in Globalisation), and some of these consumption practices are forms of resistance against advertisers.

(5) Other scholars emphasise the liberating aspects of consumption, arguing that because shopping and and consumption were not traditionally coded as masculine, these became the domain of women and women gained status, satisfaction and a degree of freedom by becoming skilful consumers.

Comment – I fully accept that people make active choices when it comes to consumption – however, to reiterate the above point – It is society which has made us into consumers, focussing on HOW people consume once they have been made into consumers sort of misses the point – As far as I’m concerned, for the majority of people, consumerism is a pathetic strategy toward ‘agency’ – agency within a sub-optimal framework, which is based on false promises and false hope of realising happiness and satisfation.

Beyond the Active Passive Debate

Recent scholarship has moved ‘beyond’ (sideways?) debates about whether individuals are active or passive in relation to advertising.

(1) Leiss (2005) argues that advertisers study society, recycle existing beliefs and practices and broadcast those ideas back to society. The importance of advertising lies in the fact that it has become integrated into our culture and affects how we view ourselves.

(2) Finally Holt and Holt and Cameron (2010) argue that advertising reconfigures existing beliefs and practices in a way that resolves psychological needs for specific groups of consumers, which arise because of social and economic challenges they face.

Advertisers create adverts based on profiling certain groups and try to strike a chord with them – advertising recycles existing cultural practices in a manner that resolves psychological distress and uncertainty among people within these groups.

Leiss and Holt and Cameron all argue that we should understand advertising as the product of a dialogue between creative professionals and specific social groups.

Once again to reiterate the above, advertising may well help people resolve psychological crises they’ve developed because of having alienating jobs and busy-hurried lives, but the consumption that one’s encouraged to do in order to resolved such psychological distress is only ever going to offer short-term release, a quick fix if you like.

Overall I think all of these active theories of advertising which (a) fail to contextualise its function within the broader social and economic context (alienating/ insecure/ liquid) and (b) fail to recognise the fundamentally false nature of advertising’s promises to alleviate the suffering induced by this social and economic context are ultimately incomplete theories (and probably derived from people with career-histories in advertising!)

Consuming Life, Zygmunt Bauman: A Summary of Chapter 4

Chapter 4: Collateral Casualties of Consumerism

The concepts of collateral damage and collateral casualties have become a central part of political discourse.

The concept of collateral damage is that when harm occurs as an unintended consequence of an action, then the person doing that action cannot be held legally or morally responsible. The divorcing of the two is fundamentally about encouraging a kind of moral blindness towards the victims.

One tool which the politicians have in their box to justify collateral damage is the difficulty of measuring the likely amount of it for any given conflict – It is as if by not calculating the likely ‘collateral damage’ (or at least not publicly sharing the calculations) then this is what enables the claim of unintentionality to be justified.

Bauman now argues that collateral damage occurs not only in the realm of military involvement but also in the extension of the market into more and more spheres of social life – and the ultimate form collateral damage here is the commoditisation of daily life…

In the words of J. Livingstone, ‘the commodity form penetrates and reshapes dimensions of social life hitherto exempt from its logic to the point where subjectivity itself becomes a commodity to be bought and sold in the market as beauty, cleanliness, sincerity and autonomy.’

Arlie Russell Hochschild argues that the consumerist invasion into personal life has lead to the ‘materialization of love’:

Exposed to a continual bombardment of advertisements through a daily average of three hours of television (half of all their leisure time), workers are persuaded to ‘need’ more things.

To buy what they now need, they need money. To earn money, they work longer hours. Being away from home so many hours, they make up for their absence at home with gifts that cost money. They materialize love. And so the cycle continues.

For the top tier of knowledge workers, who spend long hours at work, employers go out of their way to make work environments homely, and one may experience a sense of home in workplace (albiet with your love relationship in your actual home kept going by commodities) – Whereas for the lower tier of workers, they are subjected to the very worst of Capitalism — Long working hours and insecure contracts, and not enough time to maintain meaningful relationships at home – and so for them, neither work nor home provides emotional anchors for these people.

The search for individual pleasures articulated by the commodities currently offered, a search guided and constantly redirected and refocused by successive advertising campaigns, provides the sole acceptable substitute for both the uplifting solidarity of workmates and the glowing  warmth of caring for and being cared for by nearest and dearest inside the family home and its immediate neighbourhood.

Politicians who wish to reinstate family values should think hard about the fact of the consequences of living in a consumer society – where people are trained to afford other people no more respect than the consumer goods they consume (who exist solely for our pleasure and which need replacing every two years).

The Underclass is the collective victim of the progress of consumer society.

The Term Working Class implies a people who have a useful function in society, the term lower class implies a society on the move – the lowest class being at the bottom of a ladder which it might climb. The term underclass belongs to a different image of society, one which is not hospitable to all, and one in which belonging is achieved by denying and excluding rights to certain others – and this group of others in consumer society is the underclass.

The underclass is seen as wholly cut off from the class system, a no-class, which threatens to undermine the class based order of society. This is just how the Nazis described the Jews.

According to H. Ganns, the underclass describes a wide variety of people – the workless poor, illegal immigrants, single mothers and drug addicts.

What all of these have in common is nothing, except that they are flawed consumers, they have no market-value – they cannot take place in the game of consumerism. They are conceived as an overall drain on society, like weeds who only drain from the beautiful garden, and thus the rest of us would be better off if they did not exist. They are largely conceived of (constructed?) in terms of the dangers they pose to the rest of us.

However, there is one useful function the collectivity of the underclass performs – As a source of moral panics – as a place to which we can attach the cause of our our fears – even though in reality these fears (or anxieties) are endemic to the rootlessness of consumer society itself.

The poor of society (and not necessarily just the unemployed) are useless because they cannot perform their principle duty – they cannot consume! They are thus outcasts, but they do not find solidarity as this, they experience this as loners and do not expect to be helped or find a collective way out.

So where is the place of the poor in the consumer society? In short, it is out of sight – either indoors, in ghettos, or in prisons, and mentally we are made ethically blind to them through the rewriting of their stories – from deprivation to depravity – it is their fault that they are poor.

The problem here is that once you remove a section of the population from moral consideration, they become collateral in solving society’s problems – Violence can thus be justified as a means of exterminating them, as happened with the Jews in Nazi Germany.

Nazi violence was committed not for the liking of it, but out of duty, not out of sadism but out of virtue, not through pleasure but through a method, not by an unleashing of savage impulses and an abandonment of scruples, but in the name of superior values, with professional competence and with the task to be performed constantly in view.

I think Bauman’s point is that we are doing to the poor in this country what the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany in the 1930s – writing a discourse which removes them from ethical consideration and then makes their eradication a procedural duty.

A society unsure of its own reproduction is besieged by demons of its own making – For the order building societies of the past those demons were the revolutionaries who wished to build different orders, for the consumer society of today, its demons are those who cannot consume. The problem with this is that the more the consumer society progresses, the bigger the gap grows between those who are able to consume and those who want to consume and cannot. This is simply the logic of the market.

In consumer society the ultimate goal seems to be being happy through consumerism, which means always to be doing something, always to be consuming something (in other words the goal is the avoidance of boredom) – A busy life full of consumption is a measure of success and happiness – and thus people are compelled to do so. The problem is is that there seem to be no limits to the number of things you can consume, no limits to the number of things you can do – the goal posts keep moving, there is no end!

For the poor this a real problem because they are able to listen to messages about things you could be doing (from the evil advertisers) but are unable to participate, this can breed frustration and all sorts of other negative consequences.

The disarming, disempowering and suppressing of hapless and/ or failed players is also an indispensable supplement to integration through seduction in a market-led society of consumers.

Prison is the primary means by which this is done – the means through which society now exorcises its inner demons – and these demons are cast as ending up there because of their own fault, not because of society. And the harsher the punishments can be, the more effectively those demons are exorcised.

Bauman now traces the common usage of the term ‘The Underclass’ differentiating between Gundar Myrdal’s usage of the term in 1963 – when he used it to mean the coming threat of structural unemployment in the context of increasing productive efficiency – here being a member of the underclass was something over which individuals had little control – it was a failure of the organisation of society to provide sufficient jobs for people.

He contrasts this to the usage of the term by Ken Auletta – who argued that being a member of the underlcass in the early 1980s in America was not a matter of poverty, but of actively opting out of normative values – it was a choice to be feckless – However, his study was based on a highly unrepresentative sample of people from one training centre, in which you had to be an ex convict to gain a place – And here Bauman questions the lumping together of of all the various categories of people into one class.

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 —

Bauman’s Consuming Life Summary – Chapter Two – The Society of Consumers

Bauman’s Consuming Life A Summary – Chapter 2 – The Society of Consumers

Summary of chapter One 

A fairly lengthy, paraphrased summary with a few comments in italics
In consumer culture people behave ‘unreflexively’ – without thinking about what they consider to be their life purpose and what they believe to be the right means of reaching it, without thinking about about what prompts them into action or escape, or about what they desire, what they fear and at what point fears and desires balance each other out

Nb – In defining consumers as unreflexive – that is, anyone who limits their conscious reflection to questions of what to consume- rather than focusing on the ‘deeper’ questions of life – Bauman seems to deny that such people have any sense of agency – they are not fully human. 

The society of consumers stands for a set of existential conditions under which the probability is high that most people will embrace the consumerist rather than any other culture, and obey its rules.

The ‘society of consumers’ is a kind of society which ‘interpellates’ its members primarily in their capacity as consumers. While doing that, ‘society’ expects to be heard, listened to and obeyed; it evaluates – rewards and penalizes – its members depending on the promptness and propriety of their response to the interpellation.

As a result, one’s ability to engage in consumerist performance has become the paramount stratifying factor and the principal criterion of inclusion in or exclusion from society, as well as guiding the distribution of social esteem and stigma, and shares in public attention.

(Following Frank Trentmann) This is historically unusual – for most of the modern period consumption was little discussed and when it was it was typically associated with eccentricity and wastefulness.

For the better part of modern history (that is, throughout the era of massive industrial plants and massive conscript armies), society ‘interpellated’ most of the male half of its members as primarily producers and soldiers, and almost all of the other (female) half as first and foremost their by-appointment purveyors of services.

It was the body of the would-be worker or soldier that counted most; their spirit, on the other hand, was to be silenced, numbed and thereby ‘deactivated’.

The society of consumers, on the other hand, focuses its training and coercing pressures on the management of the spirit – leaving the manage- meant of bodies to individually undertaken DIY labour, individually supervised and coordinated by spiritually trained and coerced individuals.

This coercive pressure is exerted on members of the society of consumers from their early childhood.. Following Daniel Thomas Cooke…

‘the battles waged over and around children’s consumer culture are no less than battles over the nature of the person and the scope of personhood in the context of the ever-expanding reach of commerce.’

The society of consumers does not recognize differences of age or gender (however counter-factually) and will not make allowances for either; nor does it (blatantly counter-factually) recognize class distinctions. From the geographic centres of the worldwide network of information highways to its furthest, however impoverished peripheries…

‘the poor are forced into a situation in which they either have to spend what little money or resources they have on senseless consumer objects rather than basic necessities in order to deflect total social humiliation or face the prospect of being teased and laughed at.’ (In Ekstrom et al, Elusive Consumption, 2004.)

However it is down to the individual to negotiate the staggering amount of info in order to make the right consumer decisions to avoid derision.
Since ‘social fitness’ is the responsibility of the individual, if people fail to make the right choices they are blamed (and thus constructed as ‘flawed consumers’) – we are taught to believe that there is nothing wrong with society, because there is plenty of choice, and so if people fail to succeed they are not deserving of care.

At least the above is the case if we are unreflexive viz our consumption habits.

Consumption is an investment in everything that matters for individual ‘social value’ and self-esteem, thus the crucial, perhaps the decisive purpose of consumption in the society of consumers is not the satisfaction of needs, desires and wants, but the commoditization or recommoditization of the consumer: raising the status of consumers themselves to that of sellable commodities.

If you wish to take part in society, you have to consume in this way – turning yourself into a commodity – this is a precondition which is non negotiable thus market relations are fundamental to the society of consumers, as is the calculating mindset which goes along with it.

I’m left wondering what Bauman would make of attempts to set up alternative, low impact cultures assisted by alternative financial avenues such as Kick Starter?

Becoming and remaining a sellable commodity is the most potent motive of consumer concerns, even if it is usually latent and seldom conscious, let alone explicitly declared.
The society of consumers, with its compulsive and willing individualization places a magnified emphasis on the on the subject as the one who has the duty to make oneself something, and on the individual as being the one who is responsible if one fails.
NB – I guess to simplify one of Bauman’s basic points you could just say that we believe that we are responsible for own successes and failures in life only because that is what society tells us, and this isn’t necessarily true.
In the society of producers, society took on the role of a ‘collective Prometheus’ – it took responsibility for the product in exchange for the individual conforming to social norms. If you just ‘became’ what society asked of you’ that was enough – your Promethean challenge, and sense of of Promethean pride could thus be earned if you fulfilled your social role.
However, in the age of individualisation, now that society ‘doesn’t exist’ (TINA) just becoming what society wants is no longer an option – ( in the consumer society the point, the task, is to continually become something else)
Being born, having become something are now sources of ‘Promethean shame’ and the task of the individual is to perfect themselves – to become more than they are, and there is never an end to this process… life is a never ending struggle of becoming.
Because of this, being a member of the society of consumers is a daunting task, a never-ending and uphill struggle. The fear of failing to conform has been elbowed out by a fear of inadequacy, and consumer markets are eager to capitalize on that fear, and companies turning out consumer goods vie for the status of the most reliable guide and helper in their clients’ unending effort to rise to the challenge. They supply ‘the tools’, the instruments required by the individually performed job of ‘self-fabrication’.
However, following Gunder Anders, it is absurd to think of those tools as enabling an individual choice of purpose. These instruments are the crystallization of irresistible ‘necessity’ – which individuals must learn to obey, in order to be free.
Cites teen fashion as an example.
I’d be interested in looking at the social construction of retirement in this… to what extent is retirement constructed as a time when we are expected to ‘consume hard’? Does all of this end then?


There are two versions of human history – That of life as a progression towards greater rationality and freedom, of which consumer choice is the latest ‘highest’ expression, the other is of the increasing colonisation of human life by commodity markets – the society of consumers is its zenith because humans are now obliged to interact with eachother at the same level as the products they consume (as explained above) – they purchase products in order to maximise their own market-value and they have no choice but to do so.
NB – I get the impression that Bauman sides with the later version.
Markets today are sovereign, you only get political rights if you are able to consume – people such as the underclass and illegal immigrants (flawed consumers) are seen as having no rights in the popular imagination, and there is no authority they can appeal to because the state’s ability to draw the line between the included and the excluded has been eroded by the market – it now makes these decisions, and it has no tangible body that can be appealed to if people feel unfairly excluded.
In recent decades the state has shifted many of its functions sideways to the market such that the state has now become the arbiter of market demands, evidence in the centrality of economic measurements as the state’s primary indicators of its ‘success’.

The secret of every durable (successfully self-reproducing) social system is the recasting of its ‘functional prerequisits’ into behavioural motives of actors – the secret is making individuals wish to do what is needed for the system to reproduce itself.
In the modern period, this required an emphasis on deferred gratification – people committing to the idea of putting off pleasure now in order to reap the rewards in the future.
We also see in the general theories of the time – such as Freud’s reality principle and in Bentham’s panopticon – that the good society could only be constructed with the individual’s subordination to the society.
(However, such theories were themselves a product of the crisis of community – the very fact that people were thinking about community demonstrates that community is no longer ‘taken for granted’ as it was in traditional times, and because of this, it was already losing its power as a coercive force).
Much of the modern period thus involved nation states vying to restrict freedom of choice through panopticon style discipline and punish rule, but this was always cumbersome.

In the post-modern era (mistakenly conceived as a decivilising process) the civilising process takes the form of the ‘obligation to choose’ but this breeds little resistance because it is represented and conceived as freedom of choice.
People now are obliged to seek happiness and pleasure and this is lived through as an exercise of ‘freedom’ and self-assertion. Today it is as if the (individualised) pleasure principle has taken over the reality principle as the primary regulating force in society. (Reminds me of happiness is mandatory.)
When society confronts us (which it rarely does as a totality, these days) it does so in ways which make it easy for us to act as solitary consumers… (rather than in large collectivities). Bauman now gives several examples of this:

  • As mentioned earlier on in the chapter, this starts with childhood
  • At university, the new future-elite of consumers are socialised into the norm of living on credit (phase one)
  • At home we have TV dinners and fast food, which protect solitary consumers.
  • The primary acts of consumption are done in swarms – groups who come together for limited times with loose connections.
  • Elsewhere Bauman has also written about the nature of shopping malls, privatised public spaces of individualised consumption.
  • Even our post-modern ‘collective’ carnivalesque acts reinforce individualism – we come together in fringe moments to get our ‘collective’ fix and then go back to being individuals again .. ..

 

The chapter finishes with something about tax cuts to the rich and shifting taxation away from income to expenditure which doesn’t make much sense in the context of the chapter.

Summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s Individualised Society (Part Three: The Way We Act)

Zygmunt Bauman – The Individualised Society – Part Three: The Way We Act

Thirteen – Does Love Need Reason?

Love and Reason will forever fail to communicate… for three reasons.

Reason is about use, love is about value. The world as seen by love is a collection of values, as seen by reason, a collection of useful objects – Value is the quality of a thing, usefuleness an attribute of the things’ user. The usefuleness of an object stems from a sense of lack in the user – to use something to fulfil that lack. Usefuleness, and the use of reason to get what we want, is about using up the other, it is about gratifying ourselves. Love on the other hand is about valuing the other for the sake of the other.

Use is about annihilating the other for the sake of the self, love is about bolstering the other in one’s otherness and protecting them. Love means self-denial.

Secondly, reason has boundaries – it is about closing off the realm of possibilities, limiting, while love is boundless – it is forever open ended and has no limits.

Reason cuts infinity to the level of the finite self, love extends the self to the infinite.

Finally, reason prompts loyalty to the self while love prompts loyalty to the other. Reason tells us how to manipulate the other to fit around my desires, love encourages us to bend to the will of the other.

There is more to love than this – it is like signing a blank cheque – giving oneself to the forever changing uncertainty of what the other might be like in the future.

For Levinas ethics precedes ontology – ethics is better than what is – the starting point is that I put them first – my neighbour – this is the starting point, and from this point forwards there are no rules. Talking, engaging in dialogue, figuring out what is right and what should be the ‘is’ moves on from here. But care for the other should be the starting point!

Also following Logstrup – Together these propose ‘responsibility for the weakness of the other’ as the fundamental human condition – always making the effort to put the other first, and figuring out what this means is the basis of human social life – not just obeying commands and deferring to authority. This means a state of uncertainty.

To love means to be in a state of perpetual uncertainty, but people still need to get by – and reason is necessary for this – And to make things easier we often defer to authorities. However, authorities themselves use reason in the wrong way – take their attitude to the welfare state for example– they put reason first – the starting point is that we cannot afford it and so how can we reduce it – it should be the other way around – how can change society so that we can afford it?

Authorities use reason without love. It is up to us to love first (he doesn’t say this here, but he does elswhere)

Commentary
Bauman seems to be casting an individual or a society which premisis reason as a fundamentally selfish person or society – I’m no philopsher, but I think he’s talking more about cost-benefit analysis than ‘pure reason’ – or instrumental rationality – Whatever, I don’t want to get lost in semantics – I get his point – the society or person which puts the question of ‘how do I use this to ahcieve my goals’ first is selfish – because the logic of use will always end up using the other – bending them to my will.

The logic of what Bauman calls love is the opposite – putting the well-being of the other first. (NB Bauman does mention that there is a danger of becoming a patsy to the other – and all of the above is assuming you don’t yourself end up being manipulated by them….which is something we need to be on our toes about.)

I guess the principle of the welfare state is the first ever in world history where we’ve had this on such a large level. It is interesting to think how little we focus on how many lives have been saved or turned around by the welfare state, while instead we focus on the very few ‘welfare scroungers’. My suspicion is that the reality of welfare is the former, not the later, something I need to look into for sure!

I also like the question rephrasing in this – everyone should get a minimum level of care – how do we change society to make sure this happens? This is what labour should be focusing on in the election, fat chance of course!

Chapter Fourteen – Private Morality, Immoral World

For Levinas, his starting point is the moral party of two – where we are both for the other. This is morality. This is the primal scene in which both are unconditionally responsible for the other. However, when a third party comes into being (society), this necessary and sufficient condition of the moral party does not suffice any more.

Here in society I am confronted with many others and their companions – and the concepts of difference, number, knowledge, time, space, truth and falsity – my intuitive reality is not enough to cope with this anymore. In order to deal with this third other, I must leave my primal realm, and here I encounter social order and justice.

In society, with the third party, we lose our primal connection with the other as a face – and we become individuals who have roles and are governed by laws. To interact with society (following Simmel) is to engage with people who wear masks, engage in fraud, and we must learn the appropriate rituals for dealing with these people. This is far, far removed from original duality.

To return to original morality, if we can, we need to get back to connection with the other with all forms of social status dropped. We need to be reduced to the level of bare humanity given to us at our birth.

Kindness and charity are the two basic human characteristics – naturally, in the moral universe of two, they overflow…brcause we recognise our common humanity. However in society, the concept of violence is introduced through making comparisons – differentiation and then the liberal state wades in to put limits on charity – and justifies these limits through reason.

The basic problem is that there is a gap between micro and macro ethics – because I cannot be limitlessly for many others – it is impossible, so the state, that vehicle which Levinas thought would translate ethics into the social realm, can never be as ethically pure as the original two-person ethical ideal.

Following Jonas, the gap between micro and macro ethics has really come to the fore in the age of globalisation – technology and capitalism have altered the world massively, and not everyone benefits, and it seems that we have a decreasing capacity to know and predict the consequences of our actions. In fact the growing knowledge of the dangers ahead goes hand in hand with our incapacity to deal with them.

Jonas suggests that ethics (normative regulation) needs to catch up with Capitalism and technology – what we need is a sort of categorical imperative mark 2.

Bauman rounds off by pointing out that ethics are under siege mainly because of Free Market Forces being freed from the control of the nation state (and repeats what he’s written elswhere) This process basically polarises.
Can intellectuals provide moral guidance?

A weird end to the section – He basically seems to argue that the current knowledge class by delcaring the end of ideology have effectively become the organic intellectuals of the post-modern era —- They provide no ethical guidance to us. However, it may be immoral to simply lurch from one crisis to the next thinking that there are no better ways to live.

Commentary

In short, I agree with the end points, but not the ‘hypothetical ontology’ the end point rests on.

So in a hypothetical situation in which I am just with one other person (as a face) I cannot help but feel compassion (this is what he is talking about) for that other person, and I am naturally for him.

This sounds like it’s got something in common with the Buddhist concept of one’s true nature that ‘just is’ – Intuitive, overflowing with compassion, but in Levinas’ view this requires a dualism, an other, just one other, to bring all of this out. I’m inclined to say this is utter nonsense – It such a state of overflowing compassion exists it is self-less, and universal, beyond the self, not dependent on one (hypothetical?) other.

I think an ontological flaw (because it’s coming from a hypothetical idea generated by the intellect maybe) is that ‘my’ ability to be a moral being (basically limitless compassion) is dependent on there only being one discrete object – ONE OTHER (which, for clarity presumes that morality depends on a subject (me) and an object (ONE other) – Of course if this is the premise, then universal morality to more than one other is impossible.

There is no necessary reason why the ability to be moral requires one other in particular. I prefer the idea of morality defined around a pure-motive to do good for others which stems from self-transcendence, thus the basis of morality is not self-self it is non-self.

I am aware btw that I may be talking utter nonsense.

However, I do agree that it is much harder to be limitlessly for a range of others rather than one specific other, what I don’t agree with is the necessity of the other as the basis for morality. And the idea of the state as providing normative regulation because of the complexity of this makes sense – although obviously this is a very idealised conception of the state.

I also agree that there is a difference with dealing with ‘people stripped down’ as human beings, compared to dealing with people in society, because in society people take on roles and wear masks, this is something we do need to get over if we are to be more compassionate.

Finally, I also agree with the idea of using ethics to tame Capitalism. I also agree that to abandon ethics to relativism is to provide sustenance to the forces of Capital.

Chapter Fifteen – Democracy on Two Battle Fronts

Democracy requires an active agora, which in turn requires autonomous individuals and an autonomous society – a society in which people are free to form their own opinions and in which agreement around those opinions becomes law.

Democracy is under threat in the sense that the public body finds it more and more difficult to enact what is good and more and more people retreat from the agora.

The professional politicians no longer visit the agora, and for the citizens taking part in it seems increasingly like a waste of time and effort.

But the public space has been filled with private concerns.

Thus we have a Gordian knot that will be difficult to untie.

Comment

This is basically a repetition of what’s already been said in previous chapters.

Chapter Sixteen – Violence Old and New

Terrorism is a form of violence, but it is more than the acts themselves which attract the label – it is only those who lack power who get defined as terrorists by the powerful.

The essence of violence lies in coercing people into doing things they would not otherwise do, it lies in restricting their freedom.

The essence of all power struggles is the right to define with authority and to deny the right of others to define fields of action.

P209 – In all order building enterprises legitimacy (the right to define) is key – in other words the right to coerce, and in such enterprises, fighting (violence) means getting rid of anyone else who might contest your right to categorise….. your right to limit other peoples’ freedoms – thus the fight against violence in such a way is unwinnable.

Modernity has enlisted the fight against violence as one of its major concerns, yet it cannot document much progress – firstly because it is impossible to measure the actual amount of violence suffered by individuals and secondly because the very concept of order building rests on there being enemies to defeat.

However now that our institutional frame is crumbling, coercion is no longer working – people have more power to assert themselves, and violence is one way through which we can push boundaries… hence things like sexism.

At the level of the nation state – for those new nations, ethnic cleansing seems to be the way forwards. This, and making countries accommodate capitalism – both forms of violence.

17 – On Postmodern Uses of Sex

Sex, Eroticism and Love are linked yet separate. They could hardly exist without each other but each exists in an ongoing war for independence, and their boundaries are well-known for being contested.

Sex is simply the biological urge to reproduce – It hasn’t changed much, but eroticisms is cultural experimentation around sex – and lord knows there is enough surplus sexual energy to be inventive with.

In the past society dealt with this surplus sexual energy (the tendency towards eroticism) by either chaining it to sex for reproduction or to love – either people were encouraged to just have sex for reproduction and then any aspect of eroticism was hidden (either repressed or dealt with via porn, prostitution and affairs) OR it was linked to the romantic ideal of love.

Nowadays, however, eroticism is free floating – Why>? It isn’t just market forces manipulating it – There are two main underlying reasons.

Firstly the end of the ‘panoptic model’ of securing social order – which was necessary to turn masses of men into an army of industrial labourers.

However, today, the vast majority of people are integrated through seduction rather than policing, advertising rather than indoctrination, need creation rather than normative regulation. Most of us are trained as sensation seekers and gatherers rather than as producers and soldiers. We have a constant need for every deeper experiences, more intense than the ones before – this is the basis of a society based on seduction. It is not health but fitness which describes this society – being prepared to always be on the move!

There are three problems with the sensation gathering life-strategy in general…

Firstly, Fitness is always on the horizon, and is shot through with anxiety – you can always be fitter!

Second because fitness is solely about the Erlebniss, about sensations, it can never be intersubjectively reported or compared in any meaningful way – sensations remain entirely subjective – thus it breeds loneliness.

Finally – in fitness one is both the subject and the commander – you have to split yourself into two in order to drive yourself on – fitness requires total immersion, yet you also have to stand back and evaluate yourself – this is an impossible task for one person to accomplish.

All three of these lead to uncertainty, an unfocused free-floating anxiety.

Eroticism which ultimately focuses on the most extreme form of pleasure – organism has all of the above features – and thus eroticism is always a project – never complete, rarely fully satisfying.

Secondly sex is the material substratum of the cultural production of immortality and the supreme metaphor for the effort to transcend individual mortality and stretch human existence beyond the lifespan of individual humans. When sex is linked to reproduction or love then it reflects the efforts of humans to make themselves immortal, when it is detached from these then it loses this (?)

PM eroticism is perfect for constructing those PM identities which require Maximal impact and instant obsolescence.

Identities are now free floating, part of this is plastic sexuality – it has nothing to do with gender norms anymore. Parental control over child sexuality used to be regulatory – now we are suspicious of parents – child abuse etc. so we keep our distance. In short – all bonds of identity are being eroded.. This encourages us to rethink everything……

The problem for postmodern sexuality is that it is contradictory! Full of ambivalence!

18 – Is there life after immortality? This is a very obscure final chapter, quite an irritant to read.

Following Heidegger we know that our life means living towards death, and we know that our life is short.

Life appears to us (NB this is merely an assertion) as the only window of opportunity we have to transcend death, and culture is what we have (laughingly) built up to make our existence more permanent, less transient. (NB he’s getting all of this from Ernst Becker).

One way in which culture has convinced us of our immortality is through life after death: in the idea that the soul lives on after the body. He argues that this has not been disproved. However, following Weber, and to Nietzsche – Modern society no longer believes in God – but only because his existence cannot be proved.

In the absence of God, we build two bridges to try to deny our own mortality – individual level bridges, through a legacy of posterity and memory, but these are for the few only that stand the test time, so for the rest of us there are public bridges – two stand out – the family and the nation, both efforts to achieve ‘collective immortality’. There are others, such as football clubs, but none of them are serious competitors compared to the previous two.

However, families and nations have now ceased to be about perpetual duration.

Nations are now powerless compared to capital, and (interestingly) one thing which testifies to this is the ease with which new statehood is granted – smaller nations are easier for TNCs to deal with. Similarly with the family in the age of cohabitation and confluent love, relationships are not expected to outlive the people who make them up.

Given the crumbling of institutions which link the individual to universal values, then for this first time in history counting days and making days count is irrational. The consequences are as follows:

Firstly, the routes to individual immortality become crowded and as a result fame as a strategy is replaced with notoriety – which is results in a situation of maximal impact and immediate obsolesce.

Secondly, because even fame is now no longer a guarantee of immortality, then there is more urgency to enjoy mortal life, hence the moment becomes more precious.

Thirdly, the body, as all we have left (rather than the soul I presume) becomes the focus of our attention.

Fourthly, because the body becomes our temple, but we cannot be sure what effects this or that product has on it, we exist in a state of anxiety.
Ours is the first culture in history to not value the durable, we live to cast off, we live our life in episodes.

We have not been here before – we live in a state of continuous transgression and we do not seem to mind, but it remains to be seen what ‘being here’ and its consequences are like.

Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh (A summary)

This post is just a  summary of this excellent book in which Thich Nhat Hanh does a wonderful job of reminding us just how simple Zen is. This post summarises Part One – Breathe: You Are Alive.


peaceEditor’s introduction

Peace is every step.
The shining red sun is my heart.
Each flower smiles with me.
How green, how fresh all that grows.
How cool the wind blows.
Peace is every step.
It turns the endless path to joy.

Peace is not be sought externally, but in slowing down and enjoying each step, each breath.

Part One – Breath! You are Alive

24 brand new hours

Every new day we have the opportunity to live and spread peace. Peace is already with us, the question is whether we allow ourselves to realise this.

We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living. We have difficulty remembering to be present in this moment, which is the only moment there is to be alive.

This book is a wake up bell – a reminder that we can only be happy in this present moment.

The Dandelion Has My Smile

You should start the day with a smile, it is the source of all peace and happiness.

If you lose your smile, remember that the dandelion and others, all of those who support you in your efforts to be happy, are keeping it for you. If you remember this, all you need do is breath consciously for a while and your smile will return to you.

Conscious Breathing

Hanh has calligraphed the phrase ‘breath, you are alive’ onto a wall in his meditation room.

Breath unifies mind and body, doing so consciously brings us into this present moment.

Breathing and smiling are two very important things

To breath consciously just say ‘breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out’.

Present Moment, Wonderful Moment

In our busy society, it is a great fortune to be able to breathe consciously. We can take a few moments to do this almost anywhere – at home, at work, commuting. This is a recommended meditation for beginners or someone with 50 years practice.

The basic practice is this – sit and say

Breathing in I calm my body
Breathing out I smile
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.

Or simply

Calming
Smiling
Present moment
Wonderful moment.

Our appointment with life is with this present moment, if not now, then when?

Thinking Less

Most of the time we think too much, and much of it is useless, as if we had a cassette tape going on in our heads.

Conscious breathing can give us a rest from this, because the above ‘mantra’ is just a tool of concentration, not thought.

After a few minutes CB we should feel quite refreshed because we regain ourselves.

It is important to be in the present moment, because the past in gone and the future not yet here.

Nourishing Awareness in Each Moment

Being in society we often feel harassed, our sense bombarded by all sorts of things. Hanh now has it in for TV –

‘Do you ever find yourself watching a TV program? The raucous noises, the explosions, gunfire are upsetting, and yet you don’t get up and turn it off. Why do you torture yourself in this way? Watching a bad TV program, we become the TV program. We are what we feel and perceive, so why do we open our windows to sensationalist productions made for profit? We are too undemanding of ourselves,, to lonely or bored to create our own lives. By watching TV mindlessly we allow others to guide us, we need to be more careful.

Of course I am not just talking about television, all around us every day there are lures set by our fellows and ourselves – how many times a day do we become lost and scattered by them?

We must be very careful to protect our fate and our peace. It is good to withdraw every now again, close our senses to the world and renew ourselves. (However, many of us find this scary.) At first we might withdraw to nature, or the forest, to escape the chaos of modern life and to clear our senses and this will help us to re-engage with ordinary life in a more controlled manner.

However it is important not to close ourselves off altogether, because there are many miracles outside.

Sitting Anywhere

You can practice conscious breathing anywhere, even just for a few moments.

Sitting Meditation

The lotus or half lotus position is best, if not a chair, or lying down.

We sit to cultivate mindfulness, peace and non violence, not to endure pain, so it is fine to adjust yourself if pain sets in. Occasionally combine sitting with walking meditation – basically whatever feels natural.

Do not use meditation to avoid confronting your problems, they will just return if not dealt with.

Meditation should be practiced gently but steadily throughout our daily life, not wasting a single moment to see into the true nature of life, including our every day problems.

Bells of Mindfulness

Every time you hear a bell, return to yourself, breathing in and out and smiling. Say ‘Listen, listen, this wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.”

Even non-sounds, such as rays of sunlight can return us to this wonderful, present moment.

Cookie of Childhood

This section starts with Hanh relaying how he used to eat Cookies very slowly. Eating slowly and mindfully is a most important practice.

The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.

Tangerine of Mindfulness

If I offer you a freshly picked tangerine to enjoy, I think the degree to which you enjoy it will depend on your mindfulness.

You can see everything in the universe in one tangerine (the tree, the roots, the earth, the blossoms, the wind, the sunlight). When you peel it and smell it, it’s wonderful. You can take your time eating a tangerine and be very happy.

The Eucharist

In a drastic way, Jesus was trying to wake up his disciples – When we eat, we should be mindful, when we see people we should be mindful. If we are mindful life is real in this present moment, if not then people are as ghosts.

Eating Mindfully

The Purpose of Eating is to Eat.

Before eating, set the table, breath and smile at each other. Not many people do this, but it is very important.

We should be appreciative of the food we eat when so many are starving in the world. Eating is a good opportunity to generate compassion.

We can eat silently, or talk, but only positive talk, nothing distracts from the simple pleasure of being in the moment and eating in friendship.

Washing Dishes

The idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can only occur when you are not doing them. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles!

If I am incapable of enjoying washing the dishes, I will be incapable of enjoying dessert, forever dragged into the future, never able to live in the present moment.

Each action done in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred.

We do the dishes, not only to have clean dishes, but to do the dishes.

Walking Meditation

Walking can be very enjoyable. We walk slowly, alone or with friends. If possible in some beautiful place, walking not in order to arrive, but just to walk.

Shake off all worries and anxieties, not thinking about the future or the past, just enjoy the walking in the present moment.

If we walk in a hurried manner, we only sow seeds of anxiety. Instead, we should walk as if we are the happiest person on earth, planting peace and serenity.

While you walk, count your breaths, co-ordinate your breath with your paces, as many as you need, and if you want to stop a while and look around you.

Telephone Meditation

The telephone is very convenient, but we can be tyrannised by it. When we hear the phone ring it often causes some anxiety, and when we talk we often talk of trivial things and forget ourselves. We are victims of our telephone.

(Try replacing the word telephone with Smartphone and this is even more true.)

Next time you hear the phone ring say ‘listen, listen, this wonderful sound brings me back to my true self. Breathe and smile and be in control of yourself, for two rings, and then pick up the phone, in consciousness – then how fortunate for the other person. If you are both doing this, it transforms the whole experience.

Driving Meditation

We often don’t need to use the car, rather we use it as a means of escaping from facing up to ourselves. Hence this poem to help overcome this.

Before starting the car
I know where I am going
The car and I are One
If the car goes fast I go fast.

The message here is – wherever the car goes, my self goes, there is no escape. If we realise this, we may choose not to drive, and go for a meditative walk instead.

The car and I are one – the car is not an instrument which we control, when we drive, we become the car – with all its destructive powers.

We should also aim to be in the present moment rather than thinking about arriving – this way red lights won’t be quite as irritating.

When driving – if stuck in traffic, do not fight this, this is useless. When you see a red light, breathe and smile instead, use it as a chance to practice.

It is not just going for a drive which we use to distract ourselves from ourselves, from the pain of being alone with ourselves which we cannot stand – our culture offers us many things to distract us, to keep us busy.

Decompartmentalisation

Mindfulness should not just be something we do in the meditation hall. We should bring mindfulness into our daily lives, into every moment. We should practice smiling while cutting carrots, and in general be mindful when at work and in our leisure time. We need to discuss among ourselves how best to do this.

Breathing and Scything

Here Thay relays the time he bought a Scythe – he found that if he coordinated his breathing with his movements, and concentrated on what he was doing in an unhurried manner, he could work for long periods, if not he tired quickly.

He then says that he takes care to not tire himself by getting out of breath, he practices non violence on his body because it is just a means to an end.

One day an old man offered to show him how to use a Scythe and although more adept adopted a similar style to what Thay had taught himself. Every time he sees someone cutting grass with a Scythe he knows they are practicing awareness.

Aimlessness

In the West, we are very goal oriented, we know where we want to go, but along the way we often forget to enjoy ourselves along the route.

There is a word in Buddhism that means ‘wishlessness’, or ‘aimlessness’. The idea is that you do not put something in front of you and run after it, because everything you need is right here, in yourself.

Whatever we do we should do in an aimless way. The point of doing anything, is just to do it.

Often we tell ourselves don’t just sit there, do something. But in fact, the opposite may be more useful – don’t just do something, sit there! We need to learn to stop from time to time in order to see clearly.

This basically involves being mindful – which is the foundation of happiness. If we are mindful we can learn to take pleasure in the many miracles that we usually just take for granted.

We should appreciate more what we have – there are so many things in life which we do not appreciate because we are too busy trying to get somewhere else.

Our Life is a Work of Art

We have developed a habit of looking at things with the intention of getting something. However, this is wrong. Instead we should look at things just in order to be with them, with no gaining thought.

The point of meditation is just to be with ourselves and the world. If we are capable of stopping, we will see, and if we can see then we will understand.

When we do not trouble ourselves about living life as a work of art, if we just live each moment fully with no gaining thought, then our life becomes a work of art. When we learn to be peace then our life as art will truly flourish.

Hope as an obstacle

When I think deeply about the nature of hope I see something tragic. We need to abandon hope in order to fully realise the joy in this present moment. Hope is for the future, and although it can help us deal with the present moment, that is all it can do. Instead of focusing on hope for the future we should channel our energies into now.

A.J. Must said – there is no way to peace, peace is the way. Thus it should be with our life, don’t focus on doing something now in order to be happy, learn to focus on the moment and be happiness in what you doing.

Flower insights

Starts with the flower sermon: when someone holds out a flower to you, they want you to see it, but in order to see it you need to be fully yourself, not thinking about the meaning of the flower.

When you are really yourself then you can enjoy life in this present moment.

Breathing Room

We have a room for everything – but not for mindfulness, Every household should have a breathing room, where we can sit and start the day in meditation, or for reconciliation.

Hanh now imagines a scene where a husband and wife have an altercation, but instead of escalating the row, the husband withdraws to the breathing room, and sounds a bell. The wife feels better because she knows her husband is taking time out. The daughter who witnessed the slight altercation feels relieved and also goes into the breathing room, another bell sounds, which reminds the wife she should now go and join her husband and daughter. Now the whole family, by virtue of a bell and a breathing room are sitting in reconciliation.

Hanh rounds off by saying he knows of families where the children start their day with brief meditation sessions and that every household should have a breathing room.

Nice!

Continuing the Journey

This section of the book has been concerned with mindfulness practice, or how to be mindful in a variety of situations. Mindfulness is the cornerstone of a happy life. The next section deals with how to deal with unpleasant emotions.