The idea of a consumerist society casts away the enduring values of products to sustain the endless cycles of production
"How can people find interest in serious and rational ideas if they are constantly fed trivial entertainment?" With this statement, the contents of mass media were vehemently criticised in a recent op-ed.
This thought provoking sentence aids in exposing the evils of mass consumption or contemporary consumption practices in Bangladesh.
In response to the proposition about "the perils of pleasure-driven culture", I would like to draw our attention to the perils associated with the idea of "consumption" itself.
The analysis of consumption practices took the social sciences discipline by a storm in the 1980s and everything we do in societies such as clothing, forms of entertainment, food habits, travelling, beautification, etc, are being considered as consumer practices - something that is analogous to eating food, such as consumption.
Many in the academic community started to consider various artificially created social practices by advertisers and marketers. American anthropologist David Graeber, in 2007, referred to this as an elitist and puritanical view of consumption.
There is an inherent problem with treating every human action as "consumption", guided by artificially created demands. It implies that most people are "mindless automatons" who find life's pleasure in consumption.
Social analysts tend to ignore that people create their own meanings out of the products they surround themselves with or the activities they engage in.
By denouncing consumption, we are exploring the practices that as humans we live with ascribing meanings to our lives. So, the question Graeber raised was, "Why did we start calling particular kinds of human action 'consumption' rather than something else?"
Consumption in today's world means anything that involves the usage and enjoyment of a purchased product, which a person does not directly utilise for production or exchange of new commodities.
For instance, the Oxford dictionary defines "consumption" as "the act of using energy, food, or materials" and "the act of buying and using products".
If we ponder upon this definition, we will realise anything most wage-labourers would do other than working becomes "consumption". Hence, one can claim that this form of consumption is not just a passive acquiescence, but might be an important form of self-expression.
The problem I want to address is a theoretical one. We readily assume that when people are not working, they consume things. Consumption, in this contemporary sense, appeared through the literature of political economy, as Adam Smith and David Ricardo began to use the word "consumption" as opposed to "production".
This tendency is related with historical separation of the places - where people lived as opposed to where people worked.
The separation was something like this: At the workplace, goods were "produced" and in the household, those were "consumed".
Concomitant with this trend, a defining feature of capitalism, endless cycles of production made its way.
To continue production, goods once produced must be consumed, destroyed or made irrelevant to make way for new goods to be produced in order to keep the capitalist production chain running.
Hence, the idea of a consumerist society - people using things up while they are outside the workplace - casts away the enduring values of products to sustain the endless cycles of production. Thereby, we can trace back the features of the said society at the dawn of industrial revolution.
The notion of a consumerist society, or consumerism, signifies a moment in human history when most of us start building our lives around the so-called consumer goods we choose from an array of products that are not basic necessities, rather objects of desire.
In Graeber's opinion, we appear to be dealing with a continual supply of latent fantasy material - some of which are particular market commodities and some are not. But it is to be noted that as consumers, humans do not just flaccidly absorb.
In the realm of sociality, however, we actively interpret and appropriate the "things" coming out of a factory, in ways the producers could never suspect - a form of "creative consumption".
There are many forms of cultural expressions that were historically criticised and later accepted as something not deviant. For instance, forms of pop and rock music faced condemnation when it first appeared in Bangladesh in the 1970s and 1980s.
Moreover, how much of the ideas of consumption apply to TV programming? While we can find some people organising their lives around a particular show, drama or TV programme, the vast percentage of TV viewing is customised for people who are almost emotionally and physically drained due to long working hours in extremely alienated and stressful forms of production system.
They remain unable to engage in any form of rewarding, pleasurable, and meaningful activity. Thus, they remain inclined to engage in something easier to relate.
Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian philosopher, has termed this phenomenon as "canned laughter" in his book "How to Read Lacan" (2006).
Therefore, the problem with analysing consumption as an autonomous domain of meaning creation is a disregard of the effects of work, as author Conrad Lodziak argued in his book "The Myth of Consumerism" (2002).
To make the argument clear, we should not highlight a trivial form of entertainment devoid of the overall production system of the society where people, as workers, have somewhat become "appendages", to use a Marxist terminology, to the production machine.
We often see a group of young people chatting on the rooftop or at roadside tea stalls, walking around and chatting as if they are doing "nothing". This form of timepass is a common feature in the so-called developing countries and might appear as one of the trivial activities.
Another author, Craig Jeffery, wrote about a similar scenario in his book "Timepass: Youth, Class, and the Politics of Waiting in India" (2010) as these social practices are attuned to the durability of social inequalities emerging from neoliberal transformations of the world.
In the face of temporal and spatial insecurities, many "useless people", such as the marginalised youth, engage in timepass activities which have the possibility of rendering solidarities across social groupings.
Separating some forms of consumption practices as "trivial" is a denial of the existent structural inequalities and supports reestablishment of the division between the elite and non-elite.
By discarding something as trivial, we might possibly miss out a strong expression of creativity and/or discontent within the current social order.
Thereby, Graeber ventured further ahead to argue that it would be more enlightening to start looking at what has been termed as "consumption sphere", as opposed to a sphere of production of human beings - not only as labour power but also as persons with social relations.
A personal note
This piece is inspired by David Graebar's (1961-2020) radical ideas. Graeber always voiced the big questions and challenged hegemonic ideas. It is a pity that we lost him so early on September 2. Rest in power Graebar. Your ideas will continue to inspire the generations to come.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan, is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.