Postmodern Cities and Consumption
POSTMODERNIST CITIES and CONSUMPTION
Postmodern cities are not known for their nation-state characteristics as cities were in ancient times, they are now known as places of consumption. A few weeks after the September 11 attacks, we heard Tony Blair urging his people to ‘consume’. As distasteful as it might have appeared then, it was indeed an honest and sincere plea- one which just had to be made. How has the world changed really! On the one hand, we wanted to sympathize with those who had lost their loved ones in tragic attacks, and on the other, we just had to urge people to continue consuming, traveling and shopping. It was important for people to shop in order to keep our postmodern cities working. It is no wonder then that just weeks after the attack, the Daily Telegraph ran a headline: ‘Britain “needs you to shop” ‘. ‘Tony Blair asked people to go shopping and take holidays to prevent the economy going into recession… after the terrorist attacks in the United States’, the article continued (Jones and Smith 2001, 1). And in a similar attempt, James Arnold of BBC tried to explain why regaining consumer confidence was essential in the postmodern world with other newspaper headlines echoing the sentiment with statements like ‘Shopping: your patriotic duty’ (Arnold 2001).
What is actually more interesting is the fact that during the Second World War, people had been urged to do just the opposite in order to help the government. Sentiments like Dig for Victory, Savings Bonds, and a plea for ‘tightening one’s belt’ to ‘get us through’ were some of the popular slogans of the time. Somehow production and not consumption were stressed making the transition even clearer. Consumption has definitely been an important aspect of societies but it is more obvious now than it had ever been before that Western societies have turned into consumer societies. This has affected the mood, the structure, and the meaning of a postmodern city.
The city has been post modernized beyond belief. It appears as if eating, shopping and entertaining are the only activities cities are meant for. People love entertaining and being entertained in the new postmodern city (Lofland 1989). Consumerism however may not always involve money. There are some non-monetary consumption experiences, which are rampant in the cities such as street-shows, and art may not have really gone out of its spirits. We regularly see art exhibitions, concerts and antiques shows being held but they are more for purchasing and trading purposes than for the purpose of promotion of art. The very design of postmodern city structure reeks of greed and consumption obsession. We have special exhibition halls meant for buying and selling. There are theaters that are meant not to promote art but the artist and his stardom. There are multiplexes and large malls that have consumption stamped on their doors. This has resulted in theft of authenticity (Zukin 1991).
Modern capitalism or consumerism as we experience it today needs some explanation. Sayer (1991, 55) rightly felt that our understanding of consumerism requires ‘a social psychology of consumption to complement Marx’s focus on production’. Sayer takes help from Marx’s account of capitalism and feels that inclusion of consumerism into capitalism had made the concept even more complicated and humorously notes ‘Marx… can hardly be faulted for not foreseeing the Visa card’ [ibid.]. capitalism is closely connected with industrialization as Engels noted ‘the proletariat was called into existence by the introduction of machinery’ (Engels 1973, 61). But what Mrax and Engels both failed to point out was the connection between production and consumption. Even after capitalism had already become a force to reckon with, it was always production that theorists or detractors discussed. They failed to see the other side of the coin and interesting for us, it is only the other side that really matters today. Campbell (1987) was probably one of the first theorists to come up with the description of capitalism that was devoid of lengthy discussions on production. His work is an ideal example of the correct approach to consumerism as it affects us today. Campbell took pains to stay detached from production and his work solely focused on consumption and its role in the spread of capitalism. Bauman’s work plays an important role in the discussion of the working class and production capitalism. He (1987, 174) notes that low income workers turned capitalism into a serious issue and thus became the “proletariat of the modern era”:
They showed signs of being conscious of the commonality of their fate, and of a determination to do something about it; they were stubborn, militant, they took to the streets, rioted, built barricades. In retrospect, we know that their militancy reached its peak in the vain attempt to arrest ‘the progress of Reason’, that is, the substitution of factory confinement for what memory held alive as the freedom of the petty producer. At the time, however, no such wisdom was available and it was easy to naturalize the historically occasioned militancy and impute to the restless and backward-looking factory hands the interests they did not possess. Violent resistance to being transformed into a disciplined and closely surveilled class of ‘rational’, capitalist society, could be taken as proof that ‘class in itself’ was already turning into ‘class for itself’; the workers were accredited with a degree of ‘settledness’ in the ‘rationalizing’ society similar to that which came naturally to their intellectual mythologists.
Bauman was indebted to Foucault for unveiling the evolution of capitalism and for explaining consumerism in postmodernist context. Bauman (1983, 42) felt that the origin of consumerism was not embedded ‘in the cultural shift from the public to the private, from the puritan to the narcissistic attitude, nor in any other “cultural resolution” often constructed as an explanation of the apparently novel life patterns’. Instead he insisted that ‘consumerism was born as a twice removed offshoot of the frustrated resistance against disciplinary power which penetrated, and finally conquered the field of productive activity’.
This brings us to the concept of a postmodern city. It is not a new concept in any sense and many feel that the entire notion of postmodernism is not outmoded. Postmodern signaled a change in urban theory as Calvino (1974, 56) explained: ‘The city… has a simple secret: it knows only departures, not returns’. Baudrillard 1998a, 81-82, the pioneer in the field was right when he pointed out that: “The same process of rationalization of productive forces which took place in the nineteenth century in the sector of production reaches its culmination in the twentieth in that of consumption.”
It is widely believed that postmodernism is something that modernists had not envisioned. It is a concept that grew out of the unexpected as capitalism grew and expanded in an unpredictable manner. Postmodernism cannot be seen as ‘a diachronic sequence of periods in which each one is clearly identifiable’ (Lyotard 1992, 90). It did not mark the end of capitalism but rather gave it a new dimension and a new power. With postmodernism we witnessed a ‘new mode of domination’, that ‘distinguishes itself by the substitution of seduction for repression, public relations for policy, advertising for authority, needs-creation for normimposition’ (Bauman 1987, 167-168).
While modernists were concerned with discipline and dominance of reason, postmodernism was all about ‘sophistication’. This and this alone can be accounted for the transformation of the society from modernist into postmodernist. And this is closely connected with consumption (Jameson 1983). We need to understand that while on the surface postmodernism is all about enjoyment and fun, it is as much a function of capitalism or mass production as was modernism: ‘The truth of consumption is that it is not a function of enjoyment, but a function of production and, hence, like all material production, not an individual function, but an immediately and totally collective one’ (Baudrillard 1998, 78). It is true beyond a fragment of doubt that postmodernism is characterized by the freedom of choice. This freedom of choice has resulted in increased demand for a large variety of goods and services and production has obviously increased as the result. Baudrillard however doesn’t want to equate postmodernism with pleasure alone. He would want us to see the factors and forces working behind that freedom of choice as writes: ‘a social logic, the system of consumption is established on the basis of the denial of pleasure. Pleasure no longer appears as an objective, as a rational end, but as the individual rationalization of a process whose objective lies elsewhere’. He explains the connection of consumerism and production in a more profound manner when he says Baudrillard (1995, 100):
it was a vital necessity for capital to have workers and producers transformed into active consumers, and even direct stockholders in the capitalist economy (this doesn’t change anything… The strategy being, as always, to remove the tablecloth without changing the organization of the table).
Having said this, we need to understand that if postmodern cities have become palaces of consumption, it is primarily due to increased production and spreading of capitalism. In a world that is marked by homogeneity, capitalism has favorable conditions to grow. However with changes in thinking and urban theory, instead of describing this concept in terms of production, it is now consumption that defines our times. We are living in a consumer society or a consumerist culture because consumption drives production instead of it being the other way around. People have now become more liberal in the way they live their lives. There are no specific rules to follow and changing lifestyles mean everyone would want something different. This results in increased variety and expanded range of goods and services at people’s disposal. Combine this with more disposable income and you have consumerism on hands. People are no longer afraid to live their dream lives and this often means fewer savings. Interestingly, consumers are not worried about that. It appears as if the fears that drove people to save in the modernist world have now been replaced by a sense of unprecedented freedom. This freedom translates into freedom of choice, increased demand for sophisticated goods, and more traveling and less savings. But the dwellers of a postmodern city do not really have a problem with that. They are happy being able to spend as and when they wish. They have higher incomes than they had ever before, greater access to credit, which was unheard of in modernist era and an insatiable appetite for entertainment.
Arnold, J. (2001) ‘Why consumer confidence matters’, BBC Online, 25 September 2001, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/business/newsid_1561000/1561162.stm
Baudrillard, J (1998a) the Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, Sage, London.
Baudrillard, J. (1995b) ‘The virtual illusion: or the automatic writing of the world’, Theory, Culture and Society, 12, 97-107.
Bauman, Z. (1983) ‘Industrialism, consumerism and power’, Theory, Culture and Society, 1(3), 32-43.
Bauman, Z. (1987) Legislators and Interpreters: On Modernity, Post-modernity and Intellectuals, Polity, Cambridge.
Calvino, I. (1974) Invisible Cities, Harcourt Brace, London.
Engels, F. (1973) the Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844: From Personal Observation and Authentic Sources, Progress Publishers, Moscow. Ethnography 17, 4 (January), 453-482.
Jameson, F. (1983) ‘Postmodernism and consumer society’, in Foster, H. (ed.) the Anti-aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Bay Press, Port Townsend, 111-125.
Jones, G. And Smith, M. (2001) ‘Britain “needs you to shop” ‘, Daily Telegraph, 28 September, 1.
Lofland, L.H., (1989) ‘Social life in the public realm: a review.’ Journal of Contemporary (Lyotard, J.-F. 1992) the Postmodern Explained to Children: Correspondence 1982-1985, Turnaround, London.
Zukin, S. (1991) Landscapes of Power. From Detroit to Disney World. University of California Press, Berkeley.
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