Consumerism and Self-Construction

Consumerism and Self-Construction

Bradford S. Hadaway (Georgetown College, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-6120-0.ch001
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Self-construction is a process by which a person exercises self-governing agency and fashions his or her own identity, creatively weaving together the various values, beliefs, loves, and aesthetic tendencies that ultimately make a self. Though consumer culture seems to provide the raw materials necessary for self-construction using the meaning-making and signaling capabilities of products and brands, consumption-based projects of self-creation will likely falter because of structural features of desire-formation in that setting. For projects of self-creation to be meaningful, the choices about what kind of identity to form must (1) flow from reflective processes and (2) be based on grounds that the agent him or herself can endorse—two conditions necessary for self-governing agency. Yet desires in consumer culture are often hardened into what Kant calls “passions,” a kind of desire that precludes and overcomes reflective processes thus undermining the self-governing agency that is required for self-construction.
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The kind of consumerism that finds expression in affluent, advanced capitalist societies like the U.S. certainly has its critics. Such critics challenge its cheap, quickly obsolete, mass-culture outputs, its environmental consequences, its promotion of North/South inequalities and economic injustice, or its tendency to turn everything into a commodity, including the laborers who toil to produce the goods and services of consumer culture (Camacho, 1998; Crane, 2010; Daly, 1998; Lee, 1993; Pogge, 1998). Whatever goods consumer culture musters are often met step for step with accompanying difficulties that are just as damaging to modern life as the goods are palliative. It is difficult to celebrate the “advances” of the latest smart phone technology without worrying over what humans will become when they are constantly wired, mediating social contact through devices, and communicating in shorter and shorter bursts (some of which disappear ten seconds after access).

Yet there is one area where consumerism seems to offer a more hopeful and interesting positive contribution to a modern world where traditional sources of meaning have lost much of their natural force and pull. Much of the success of consumerism has been built on the manipulation of the symbolic meanings of the things people own, making them more than just bundles of utilities portrayed in the advertising of an earlier age (Baudrillard, 1981; Bordo, 2000; Goldman & Papson, 2000). Modern consumers consume meanings along with the physical commodities, and for selves that had been robbed of key sources of identity in a disenchanted modernity, this could provide welcome relief. Projects of self-creation and meaning-making could proceed apace in the vast arena of the marketplace, with almost unlimited resources that not only help to tell the agent's own best story but also to communicate that story to others. Self-constructors in the marketplace can exercise creativity and weave together meanings expressively to buttress the thin, wavering identities left in postmodernism’s wake.

Such self-constructors can grant the central premise of nihilism that life has no intrinsic meaning or value and still find hope in the newfound freedom to construct meaning for themselves by what they purchase, use, and display. Camus might depict life as a meaningless and perpetual Sisyphean exercise in boulder-rolling, but consumeristic self-constructors can transform Sisyphus’ boulder-rolling into a Nike-style ad celebrating the heroic pursuit of an elusive ideal (Camus, 1955). Beckett might depict life as an absurd meandering from one episode to another searching for some pitiable comfort (1954). Yet for the consumeristic self-constructor, the barren site where Vladimir and Estragon wait in perpetuity for Godot is just another opportunity for a dilapidated, shabby exterior to be transformed into a location with curb appeal during the “big reveal.” In other words, against the backdrop of nihilistic anxiety, perhaps there is some value in using consumer culture to create self-narratives which are creations of real inspiration and beauty, cheerfully stealing whatever still has resonance from the old meta-narratives.

This chapter will explore this heroic ideal of self-construction in consumer culture to find out whether it really can hold out the promise of identity-formation to a culture having trouble finding itself (Taylor, 1989; Taylor, 2000).1 It begins by piecing together a working definition of self-construction as expressed in its practical rather than theoretical context. Then the conception of self-governing agency presupposed by the self-construction projects one might undertake in the marketplace is examined. And finally, the chapter will show that those who attempt to practice self-construction through ordinary consumptive practices in consumer culture are forming their desires in ways that destabilize the self-governance necessary for self-construction. Contrary to its own best hopes and dreams, then, self-construction in consumer culture is a practice that contradicts or undermines itself.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Self-Governing Agency: Decision making that proceeds from uninhibited reflection with choices that reflect the agent’s own values.

Dialogical Character of Identity: A conceptual requirement of identity formation or discovery. It stipulates that meaningful building blocks of an agent’s identity be formed or uncovered in dialogue with frameworks of meaning that cannot be reduced to mere products of individual choice.

Deliberative Space: An allotment of adequate time and care for reasoned reflection about key decisions.

Horizons of Meaning: Narrative or theoretical frameworks of interlocking and more or less coherent beliefs that present accounts of a life worth living or a character worth having Inclination: habitual desire.

Passion: A lasting inclination which is not easily susceptible to change or correction by an agent’s own reason.

Self-construction: An adopting or fashioning of all those things about a person that he or she might take as constituting identity (e.g., core beliefs, values, emotional proclivities, desires and affections, human excellences, attitudes, bodily appearances, identity-conferring possessions, aesthetic tastes, etc.).

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