Consumer Culture and Postmodernism by Mike Featherstone

The term ‘postmodernism’ “is more strongly based on a negation of the modern, a perceived abandonment, break with or shift away from the definitive features of the modern, with the emphasis firmly on the sense of the relational move away” (3).

“The French use of modernite points to the experience of modernity in which modernity is viewed as a quality of modern life inducing a sense of the discontinuity of time, the break with tradition, the feeling of novelty and sensitivity to the ephemeral, fleeting and contingent nature of the present” (4).

Jameson: “the transformation of reality into images and the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents” (5). Identifies (1984b) two basic features of postmodernism as (1) the transformation of reality into images and (2) a schizophrenic  fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents” (42).

We should “focus upon the actual cultural practices and changing power balances of those groups engaged in the production, classification, circulation and consumption of postmodern cultural goods´(5).

Features of modernism: “a rejection of narrative structure in favor of simultaneity and montage; an exploration of the paradoxical, ambiguous and uncertain open-ended nature of reality; and a rejection of the notion of an integrated personality in favor of an emphasis upon the de-structured, de-humanized subject” (7).

Central features of postmodernism in the arts: “the effacement of the boundary between art and everyday life; the collapse of the hierarchical distinction between high and mass/popular culture; a stylistic promiscuity favoring eclecticism and the mixing of codes; parody, pastiche, irony, playfulness and the celebration of *the surface ‘depthlessness’ of culture; the decline of the originality/genius of the artistic producer; and the assumption that art can only be repetition” (7-8). “These general features of postmodern theories which stress the equalization and levelling out of symbolic hierarchies, antifoundationalism and a general impulse towards cultural declassification, can also be related to what are to beheld to be the characteristic postmodern experiences” (65).

“Postmodernism is of interest to a wide range of artistic practices and social science and humanities disciplines because it directs our attention to changes taking place in contemporary culture. These can be understood in terms of (1) the artistic, intellectual and academic fields (changes in modes of theorization, presentation and dissemination of work which cannot be detached from changes in specific competitive struggles occurring in particular fields); (2) changes in the broader cultural sphere involving the modes of production, consumption and circulation of symbolic goods which can be related to broader shifts in the balance of power and interdependencies between groups and class fractions on both inter- and intra-societal levels; (3)changes in the everyday practices and experiences of different groups, who as a result of some of the processes referred to above, may be using regimens of signification in different ways and developing new means of orientation and identity structures” (11).

“Postmodernism effectively thrusts aesthetic questions towards the center of sociological theory: it offers aesthetic models and justifications for the reading and critique of texts (the pleasure of the text, intertextuality, writerly texts) and aesthetic models for life (the expressive anesthetization of life, art as the good of life)” (31).

Postmodernism’s critique and rejection of the meta-narratives of modernity (science, religion, philosophy, humanism, socialism, feminism, etc.), all of which seek to impose some sense of coherence and cogency onto history, direct us away from universalizations toward the particularity of local knowledge” (33).

“The new tastemakers, constantly on the look out for new cultural goods and experiences, are also engaged in the production of popular pedagogies and guides to lifestyle and living. … The new cultural intermediaries can be found in market-oriented consumer culture occupations- the media, advertising, design, fashion, etc.- and in state-funded and private helping professions, counselling, educational and therapy occupations” (35).

“[T]o collapse the old distinctions between high culture and mass culture, to challenge the notion of the autonomous creative artist and artisanal definition of art that modernism perpetuated, to show art is everywhere, not any in the body, but also in degraded landscape of mass culture” (39).

“The growth of new cultural intermediaries and new audiences for symbolic goods within the middle class itself must also be understood in terms of change in the wider interdependencies between the state, economic, and business specialists and the specialists in symbolic production which are part of a new long-term process of the increasing valorization of art” (43). “Indeed their veneration of the artistic and intellectual lifestyle is such that they consciously invent an art of living in which their body, home, and car are regarded as an extension of their persona which must be stylized to express the individuality of the bearer” (60).  “[W]orkers in fields such as advertising, marketing, design, fashion, commercial art, architecture and journalism who help to design and create the dream-worlds. In many ways their tastes, dispositions and classificatory schemes are similar to those of the artists and intellectuals, and they usually keep in touch with the latest developments in this sphere” (77).

“The implications of the alleged shift towards the postmodernism are thus to highlight the significance of culture in a dual emphasis upon (1) the emergence of new techniques of cultural production and reproduction which transform everyday experiences and practices, and (2) the questioning of the deep cultural coding of modernity in which knowledge was given foundational status in the sense that science, humanism, Marxism, or feminism claimed or spired to offer humankind authoritative guidelines for both knowledge of the world and practical action within it. Postmodernism has therefore raised far-reaching questions about the nature of cultural change and the underlying meta-theoretical  nexus with which we seek to analyzes it” (51). The term ‘lifestyle’ within contemporary consumer culture “connotes individuality, self-expression, and a stylistic self-consciousness. One’s body, clothes, speech, leisure pastimes, , eating and drinking preferences, home, car, choice of holidays, etc. are to be regarded as indicators of the individuality of taste and sense of style of the wonder/consumer” (83). “This apparent movement towards a postmodern consumer culture based upon a profusion of information and a proliferation of images which cannot be ultimately stabilized, or hierarchized into a system which correlates to fixed social divisions, would further suggest the irrelevance of social divisions and ultimately the end of the social as a significant reference point” (83).

Culture, “the anthropological or everyday meaning in the sense that all societies involve signifying practices, and culture in the sense of high culture, the product of specialists of symbolic production… This assumption that this privileged cultural sphere has been eroded by the profusion of mass consumer cultural images and signs glosses over the long process of completion and interdependencies between the carriers of the market, consumer or mass culture and specialist high culture” (55). “[P]opular culture and its ritual inversions such as carnivals, festivals, and fairs” (55).   “While the term ‘cultural sphere’, which includes science, law, religion as well as art, may direct us away from the interdependencies it has with the rest of the society, it has the merit of focusing attention on the carriers– to the growth in numbers and power-potential of specialists in symbiont, and in particular… artists and intellectuals” (75).

“We “should acknowledge that particular versions of culture are carried and manipulated by various groups in a struggle to appropriate signs and use them in terms of their own particular interests” (56).

“To use the term ‘consumer culture’ is to emphasize that the world of goods and their principles of structuration are central to the understanding of contemporary society. This involves a dual focus: firstly, on the cultural dimension of the economy, the symbolization and use of material goods as ‘communicator’ not just utilities; and secondly, on the economy of cultural goods, the market principles of supply, demand, capital accumulation, competition, and monopolization which operate within the sphere  of lifestyles, cultural goods and commodities” (84). “Consumption, then, must not be understood as the consumption of use-values, material utility, but primarily as the consumption of signs” (85). Consumer culture for Baudrillad is effectively a postmodern culture, a depthless culture in which all value shave become transvalued and art has triumphed over reality” (85).

“What the shift towards postmodern culture is held to introduce is a movement away from agreed universal criteria of judgment of cultural taste towards a more relativistic and pluralistic situation in which the excluded, the strange, the other, the vulgar, which were previously excluded can now be allowed in” (106).

“The new consumption ethic which was taken over by the advertising industry by the late 1920s celebrated living for the movement, hedonism, self-expression, the body beautiful, paganism, freedom from social obligations, the exotica of far-away places, the cultivation of style and the stylization of life” (114).

“Popular mainstream culture, such as soap operas, films, television advertisements, newspapers and magazines, are generally much freer from cultural exploration, criticism and protest” (119).

The term culture has “been variously used to refer to norms, ideas, beliefs, values, symbols, languages and codes. It can slop point to the process of spiritual and intellectual development of the person, or to specialist intellectual and artistic enclaves and practices (the cultural sphere or high culture) and even the whole way of life of a group, people or society (the anthropological view). This last meaning, culture as a ‘whole way of life’, as we shall see implicitly assumes a common shared set of meanings, beliefs and values between people which somehow cohere into an integrated whole” (129).

“Pure taste entails a refusal, a disgust of simple enjoyment and pleasures” (135

“[O]ne definition of a common culture is a common language. While advocates of popular culture might point to the wide range of regional, local and subcultural languages and vernacular form which adherents of a common language have to suppress in the very act of its formulation and codification, the notion of a language can also refer to a deeper level” (143).

Mike Featherstone Consumer Culture and Postmodernism. London: Sage Publications, 1991.

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