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Comm 5537 - Culture, consumption and postmodernity

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Giles Dodson

on 21 May 2014

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Transcript of Comm 5537 - Culture, consumption and postmodernity

Modernity and Postmodernity
A cultural epoch inaugurated by the twin processes of industrialisation and Enlightenment (18th century onwards...)

Characterised by new industries, sciences, technologies, services, professions, social formations, political movements and cultural forms.

Art, music, literature, philosophy, science, seeking to provide expression to the 'newness' of modern society

The embrace of the new - the aesthetic logic of a modernising society

A rational ethos challenging tradition and ritual in the name of critical thought, empirical knowledge and humanism. A belief in progress.
On the other hand...
Modernity also expresses a
tension between progress and enlightenment thought and instrumental rationality and technocratic bureaucracy
Modernity as an aesthetic concept - centrally concerned with 'the new'

Modernity as a faith in science and human progress

Modernity as a cultural and ideological process - historical awareness, consciousness of human capacity to make history and shape social change
Again, both an aesthetic sensibility, cultural 'moment' and theoretical explanation

The 'postmodern' initially emerges in the context of art history and theory, followed by other aesthetic forms - literature, architecture, cinema, and philosophy

1960s and 1970s onwards - theoretical and aesthetic high point in the 1980s and 90s

Theorisation of culture as merged with advanced (media/symbolic) capitalism
So whats it all about then?
Francois Lyotard - The Postmodern Condition (1979)
The postmodern is characterised by the breakdown in "grand narratives" of enlightenment thought

We can no longer explain society and history through these stories; progress; human development; our 'cultural stories' have collapsed....

For Lyotard, the enlightenment goal of human freedom relies on a universal, collective subject seeking freedom - one set of values for all...

However any claim of universal representation or harmony is criticised as dominating and tyrannical.

Think multi-culturalism...

With signs/symbols/language as the basis of reality - reality fundamentally uncertain and ambiguous - no possibility of discovering the 'truth' of reality, rather contesting representations, reproductions and reappropriations

Fredric Jameson - Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism (1991)

For Jameson, the 'postmodern' changes that have taken place in the last 30+ years reflect the logic of advanced capitalism - the commercialisation of EVERYTHING

Commercial culture - no longer does cultural ideology 'disguise' economic activity, but rather economic activity
is culture.
Postmodern thought celebrates freedom, play, multiplicity and irony in cultural production - 'remix' culture is quintessentially PoMo...

However - neither philosophically or aesthetically does PoMo account for the material conditions and power within contemporary society

The political-economic conditions in which new cultural forms emerge are not confronted, but rather the 'popular' is simply celebrated for its own sake...
So what does PoMo look like
The eclipse of the 'modern' sensibility by the 'popular'

The notion of depth, interiority - perhaps even meaning, is treated with suspicion - thus imagery replaces narrative; styles are mixed and parodied; the popular and kitsch are celebrated

Convention is knowingly and reflexively subverted
Modernity/enlightenment ideology also 'eurocentric' - the scientific, administrative,military 'logic' of imperialism and colonialism
Society is often conceived of in terms of the relation between two concepts:

Base/ Infrastructure:The physical / material “base” which exists in an objective sense for everyone.

Superstructure: The shared mental / cultural dimension of shared codes/meanings which is created by human minds, and exists relative to communities and conventions.

What is culture? Who studies culture?

In social theory, there has been a long-standing debate about whether the analysis of culture ought to consider the base or the superstructure as the primary origin of human behaviour.

Political Economists typically emphasise material ‘base’ relations.

Anthropologists and Cultural Theorists emphasise immaterial ‘superstructure’ relations.However, both elements are interlinked, and society cannot be completely explained if either is ignored.

Perhaps an exploration of the connection between culture and advertising will help us understand this.....
Media culture and popular culture: the cultural industries
Defining feature of contemporary society (developed world) - the centrality of consumerism.

Arguably consumption has replaced older forms of social identity formation - religion, unions, political parties, civic organisations

Putnam - Bowling Alone (2000)

Where do people go on the weekend?


Centrality of 'commodities' in contemporary life

Not just for 'use' value (what the thing is worth; what its good for)

'Exchange value' - the symbolic power of the commodity
Consumer culture?
The role of advertising; or why we like stuff....
Conclusion: cultural populism and power
In 20th century (esp. in post-WW2 era) - move from economy based on production (making things; economic development) to consumption - the leisure and consumer ethic alongside the 'work ethic'

In many places - NZ, Australia, UK, USA etc; moves away from industrial production/manufacturing to consumer economy, based on consumption of goods and services

Consumer economy more important than 'production' side of economy

"the Consumer" a central economic and political actor - absolutely central to modern economic, political, socila and perhaps, cultural life

Economic changes took place in 'golden era' of prosperity - post WW2; the rise of suburbs; highways; car ownership; tourism; communications technology; household consumer goods

Rising wages, tech advances and rising living standards means more and more people can participate in consumer culture - previously marginalized groups; working class etc - the American/Ozzie/Kiwi Dream.....
Advertising has emerged as a 'conspicuous cultural phenomenon' is the post-WW2 era.

Centrally concerned with selling us goods and services (commodities) and promoting lifestyles and identities

Do we only consume that which is necessary?

On one hand, consumer advertising builds an ideological relationship between the commodity and the individual - the commodity fetish

On the other, aids a symbolic (semiotic) project of identity construction - personality, character, taste, style and type

Identification and purchase of products that match our identity or lifestyle

while some theorised the nature and function of commodities in consumer society, others theorised the 'constructed' nature of 'the self' within society - symbolic interactionism

The 'self' is a product of social interaction, not eternal or 'outside' culture/society - not something within someone

People act towards other people or objects on the basis of shared meanings and these acts constitute the 'self'
The meaning of events/behaviour is not intrinsic, but conventional (i.e. coded) - we behave is different ways depending on the context - at home, in public, at work, among different people....

Meaning and identity are constantly negotiated through the exchange of meaningful symbols (communication) - the way we act, behave and say things constitutes 'the self'

Consumption can therefore be understood as purposeful symbolic exchange - we communicate our 'identity' through the use of commodities.
the self and symbolic exchange
Symbolic Interactionism also acknowledges that social practices do not exist apart from the society, culture and economics. The production of the 'self' is not separate or autonomous from society or culture - but takes place within a particular social/cultural/economic context.

In this sense, cultural symbols/consumerism (pop/media culture) do not just represent the culture and society - we performatively constitute culture and society through their use.

A circular relationship between culture and consumption therefore: From a commodity perspective - our culture can be understood AS consumerism, not characterised by it. Culture is not separate from the activities that characterise it....
But rituals, ceremonies, and all kinds of mundane institutional transactions are also symbolic forms which reproduce culturally meaningful relations - teacher/student; husband/wife; student/professional - not necessarily consumerist BUT frequently mediated by commodities!

Clothing; food; technology/knowledge and information
To understand the contemporary cultural era theoretically - we need to discuss the move from the 'modern cultural epoch' to the the 'post-modern.
Postmodernism as both aesthetic and intellectual movement is frequently criticised for being UNCRITICAL in relation to questions of POWER

The popular is celebrated and the 'democratic' virtues of consumption, (self-)representation and choice are celebrated - think contemporary social media 'fetish'?

The 'performance of culture' emphasized over the 'structuring' of cultural experience

Issues of power, control, inequality, domination, commercialism, commodification etc that are central to critical views are frequently overlooked - postmodernism as a aesthetic and 'theoretical framework' criticised

However the critical view can verge towards the 'ideological prison' view articulated by critical theory - is escape from consumer ideology possible?

Many thinkers argue we should should view consumption/media habits as genuine expressions of identity and autonomy.

We should not ignore individual 'agency' - capacity for autonomous action. You DONT HAVE to consume.

And we should emphasise the ability to reflexively navigate the world of commodities, advertising and media and rejecting symbolic content

In this view we are both 'suckers' (subject to advertising/commercial logics) and 'savvy' (knowing users). How about you?
Parallel growth in advertising, marketing, design and diversification (consumer choice), public relations and popular culture centred on consumption

A proliferation of media and media culture; first through 'mass media', esp. television, cinema and print; music; now digital media

At the same time this is commercial culture - consumer culture - the emergence of the cultural industries

For theorists and critics of popular/media culture, these institutions provide us with the vocabulary with which to make sense of our lives, as well as shaping our experience in particular ways...

Advertising central
The postmodern aesthetic
Theories of consumerism are generally critical towards processes of capital accumulation (capitalism) and capitalist communication (advertising/marketing/PR etc)
The emergence of 'consumer culture' and an 'anything goes' cultural ethos is frequently held to be coincident with the emergence of the 'post-modern era'

This concept is not without controversy - is post-modernism a clearly identifiable and meaningful term/descriptor?

What the hell are we talking about anyway....?

Comm 5537
Culture, Identity and Communication
Contemporary branding is not about 'product info' like 1950s

more about emphemeral qualities, associations and experiences

the Apple Store doesnt emphasise laptops, devices and tech services - rather simply Apple and its associated brand qualities....
In what sense is the Mac's bar a brand experience?
Modernism - as art; design; architecture; theory; politics
Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929)

Commodities are used for social purposes - conspicuous consumption of the 'nouveax riche' - emulating the 'lifestyles' of aristocrats

Generalised across society - social mobility through consumption

Consider the way celebrities make particular products 'cool', desireable

- Georg Simmel (1858-1918)

Consumption used to assert individuality and identity in the context of anonymity

Fashion a ever-changing dynamic of modification and specialisation - used to differentiate identity through consumption

Obviously then, we use commodities to demonstrate and legtimate socio-economic distinction

The consumption of 'signs' - consumer commodities possess semiotic power - we decode the meaning of commodities - fashion; food; technology; lifestyle products etc etc

In the post-modern age, when material need are satisfied, the consumption of signs is more important than consumption of the commodity itself....
how does consumption communicate individual identity?
This perspective tends to focus on 'micro-processes - however:
Karl Marx (1818-1883)

The commodity fetish -

1) We overlook the conditions of their production and consumption, only seeing the 'economic value' of the thing, rather than the social relations of production and consumption

2) We give commodities 'magical' qualities...

the latest iPhone anyone? (insert ANY fashion item here)
Popular cultural signs/media images increasingly dominate our sense of reality - "as seen on TV" aesthetic (maybe move this to POMO)
Popular cultural signs/media images increasingly dominate our sense of reality - "as seen on TV" aesthetic

Baudrillard - 'hyperreality'
the economy
consumer culture?
From the individual to 'cultural age'....
Our cultural age is frequently characterised as 'postmodern' - the triumph of popular (consumer/commercial/media) culture
How does post-modern architecture differ fro 'modern' architecture?
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