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To what extent are we all shopping for identity?

‘Shopping is no longer just the mundane act of going out and buying a product…retailing has been imbued with a whole new ethos, a new significance, a new cultural meaning � and commodities themselves seem to have taken on a new central role in peoples lives’.

(Gardener & Sheppard, 18 4)

We all shop! It’s a simple fact of life that we all shop or consume (in Western society at least), but what does this say about us? Are we looking for that special something that personifies what we are? Are we in fact personified by what we buy and not the other way around? Is shopping and therefore consumerism merely a necessity or do we even acknowledge it’s existence at all? These are some of the areas into which I will be looking at through the course of this essay.

Order Custom To what extent are we all shopping for identity? paper

According to Bauman (188,1) the ‘consumer ethic’ has replaced the long established ‘ work ethic’. He postulates that whereas previous generations identified themselves by their jobs the more recent generations have defined their identities with possessions and image. ‘ If in a life normatively motivated by the work ethic, material gains were deemed secondary and instrumental in relation to work itself (their importance consisting primarily of confirming the adequacy of the work effort), it is the other way round in a life guided by the ‘consumer ethic’. Here work is (at best) instrumental; it is in the material emoluments that one seeks, and finds, fulfilment, autonomy and freedom.’

(188 75)

What this suggests is that no longer is the job you do or the money you earn definitive of identity. It is now the clothes you wear and the things you own which define your identification. ‘…Consumerism stands for production, distribution, desiring, obtaining and using, of symbolic goods.’ (Bauman, 1 ). This in itself is a simplistic view, which ‘…would suggest that individuals can buy identities off the peg just as corporations can buy themselves new images…’ (Gabriel & Lang, 15 87)

The idea of shopping for identity is not as absurd as the average citizen may at first consider it to be. There are few who could argue against Western society being a capitalistic one and the shop for identity is a natural by-product of this. We are constantly given the impression that wealth equals success; this wealth/success is manifested in what the outside world perceives us to possess. Marx suggests

‘That which is for me through the medium of money � that for which I can pay (i.e. which money can buy) � that am I, the possessor of money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my properties and essential powers � the properties and powers of its possessor. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness � its deterrent power � is nullified by money…’ (Marx 17 81)

What Marx suggests is that money (and therefore possessions) can alter societies perception of an individual or a group as a whole. There are many examples of (arguably) unattractive men with a great deal of money and/or power forming intimate relations with young attractive women (or indeed men). Prime examples of this would be men such as Peter Stringfellow or Mick Jagger. What this demonstrates is that with increasing regularity your projected image and your possessions are far more important than your personal attributes.

These are examples of men with �many would consider- copious amounts of money, this does not however make them irrelevant to this discussion. The pervading theme throughout the study of consumerism and identity is that although money and possessions are of pivotal importance, their importance lies in relativity.

(Gabriel and Lang 15 4-5). For example another group may well consider a student who is considered to be well off and blessed with many possessions within his or her social groups quite the reverse.

So the projection of image is (arguably) relative to our social setting. This ties in with the idea that identity is not ‘fixed’ but a malleable and ever changing thing. This is - to quote Prince - a ‘Sign ‘o’ the times’. As Berger and Luckmann point out

‘ A knight is a knight and a peasant is a peasant. There is, therefore no problem of identity. The question ‘Who am I?’ is unlikely to arise in consciousness, since the socially predefined answer is massively real subjectively and consistently confirmed in all significant social interaction. (167 184)

What this is suggesting is that in ‘pre-modern times’ a persons identity was laid out before them and was not open to interpretation or change. There was no concern of ‘Who am I?’ as there were no other options but what you already were. In today’s

‘Post-modern’ society this is far from the case. A person may belong to several different groups, all of whom may have their own beliefs and lifestyles. This presents the individual with the problem of ‘fitting in’ to all of these groups. What is a suitable projected image for one group may be highly detrimental to another. It is this occurrence, which causes the individual to ask ‘Who am I?’ and leads to identity ‘fragmentation’.

For theorists who feel there is a large discontinuity between the modern and the post-modern there is a loss of the ‘Sovereign self’, the self which reasons, reflects, decides and takes responsibility. (Gabriel & Lang, 15 1) Firat felt that

‘the consumers of post-modernity seem to be transcending these narratives, no longer seeking centred, unified characters, but increasingly seeking to ‘feel good’ in separate, different moments by acquiring self images that make them marketable, likeable and/or desirable in each moment. . . .Thus occurs the fragmentation of the self. In post-modern culture, the self is not consistent, authentic, or centred.’ (1 04)

What this seems to suggest is that the self is not constant, that identity can be changed to suit certain circumstances. The post-modern citizen is in a constantly shifting state and their identity is set adrift upon a sea of self-doubt. The producers of the commodities, which we buy are aware of this current human state and tailor their products accordingly. In today’s markets there is almost nothing that you cannot buy to say ‘This is who I am’ and to give yourself some form of identity at least in the eyes of others. Bauman felt that

‘In the game of consumer freedom all customers may be winners at the same time. Identities are not scarce goods. If anything their supply tends to be excessive, as the overabundance of any image is bound to detract from its value as a symbol of individual uniqueness.’ (188 6)

So the individual as a consumer is seeking out the perfect identity for him/herself. If as Bauman suggests there is an abundance of these identities out there to buy then what is this ‘identity � crisis’? In the words of Gabriel & Lang

‘If uniqueness is so highly prized as a prerequisite for esteem and self-esteem, the notion that any image can be the basis of identity begins to sound like a cruel joke.’ (15 )

This is of course the post-modern problem. In order to achieve an identity within which we are comfortable we must find an identity that is acceptable to us and to others. To make this situation even more exacerbating we as consumers are compelled to seek both individuality and authenticity. This is not easily possible in today’s mass-produced society where the choices for distinctiveness are limited to what companies offer us.

This situation does not however mean that consumers will embrace any image that is thrown at us. Far from it in fact, we are selective in our decisions and therefore our buying habits. The presentation of images is just simply not enough, we must feel that this image appeals to our self perceptions and appeals to what we feel we stand for.

‘While today’s consumers may be willing to adopt multiple personas in different circumstances…lifestyles, are ‘more or less integrated’ sets of practises, through which self-identities are constituted.’ (Giddens, 11 81)

So where do these consumerist habits come from? When do we start striving to find our identities through the medium of consumerism? Also why do we do this? According to Baumeister (186 1)

‘Children spontaneously like certain things and dislike others; they do not construct identities around them.’

What this suggests is that children do not distinguish possessions as status symbols. If a young child likes something (or someone) then that is all that matters. As the child grows however this ‘innocence’ begins to be tainted and lost. Image consciousness becomes the ruler supreme and dictates much of the child’s habits. Early friends are no longer popular enough to be associated with, your favourite shoes are no longer the right brand and the need to fit in becomes ever more pronounced. This becomes ever more prevalent the older the child becomes as s/he strive to be accepted as adults.

‘For young people today, consumption appears as the key to entering adulthood’ (Gabriel & Lang, 15 8)

‘young people will experiment with different identities, by ignoring the way in which class, gender and race construct the boundaries of identity’ (Abercrombie, 14 51).

The child or adolescent therefore needs to build a convincing projected image, one, which is believable and commands respect. For example a child born into a white ‘upper-class’ family in England is not going to convincingly become an African-American ‘Gangsta-rapper’. This does not mean that they would not try but that they will eventually realise that this image does not necessarily reflect them in the most appropriate way.

There are many theories, which suggest why children follow these patterns; Langman (1 58) feels that television is one of the more obvious contributions to this particular behaviour.

‘…This is all the more the case as television, having hurried if not destroyed childhood, has created the grown-up child and immature adult as the whole of a life course is sandwiched between infancy and senility.’ (Ibid)

This suggests that children have consumerism ‘rammed down their throats’, by the mass media. The constant advertising of every product imaginable takes its toll on the young and impressionable. They are presented constantly with images, which they find fascinating. Prominent television stars, sportspersons, movie stars and other familiar faces advertise certain brands and the child �and indeed the adult � associate these brands with the success that these people possess. We throughout all stages of our lives want to buy into that success.

For me it was the ‘Air-Jordan’ campaign by ‘Nike’, I wanted to be part of that success in basketball, I wanted to be Michael Jordan. For others it was football or certain films that they wanted to be associated with, the common ground was that we all felt that we could buy into these identities. However at fourteen I was not a 6”+ African-American basketball star, I’m still not (but I am now over 6”), however at the time that is who I aspired to be.

‘What man projects before him as his ideal is the substitute for the lost narcissism of his childhood in which he was his own ideal…To this ideal ego is now directed the self-love which the real ego enjoyed in childhood. The narcissism seems to be now displaced on to this new ideal ego, which, like the infantile ego, deems itself the possessor of all perfections.’ (Freud, 114 4)

What I feel Freud is saying here is that as children we are thoroughly content with ourselves (I believe he is talking about pre-school children). As we age we lose this contentment and try to ‘love’ an idealised version of ourselves, which we view as perfect.

Lasch however argues that today’s narcissistic subject is not lost in self-admiration, but is never happy with what s/he finds.

‘He is not happy with what he sees. He worries about growing old and ugly. He sets about busily constructing an ego- ideal around idealised qualities of commodities, aided and abetted by the propaganda of the makers of dreams…Although blemished, the narcissist always finds something to admire in himself; his life- story may not have been crowned with glory yet, but the happy end is within site- if only he tries a little harder, gets a lucky break, or, above all, finds a bit more money.’ (Gabriel & Lang, 15 5)

What Lasch, Gabriel & Lang all seem to be saying is-I feel- the crux of the matter. It seems that no matter what the consumerist subject does-no matter what identity they assume-, they find it near impossible to achieve the contentment and sense of belonging that they are striving towards.

In conclusion I feel that consumerist society offers us the consumer, many varied ways to alter the outside worlds perception of ourselves. In many respects this gives the consumer an almost limitless freedom of choice, we can be whatever (within social reason) we choose to be. However Giddens (11) feels that there are also dangers within this too.

‘The modern condition entails both opportunities and dangers for the individual. The material conditions within which and in response to which we form our identities are not benign. They both afford possibilities for personal development and they threaten that development- increased freedoms go hand in hand with increased responsibilities.’ (Lunt & Livingstone, 1 4)

What this means is that there are two-sides to the proverbial coin, on the one side this buying of identity can be extremely beneficial, and on the other highly detrimental. Consumerism can offer identities, which we may not always be aware of; it can help us to explore ourselves (Lasch, 180, 184, 11). It can help us to see ‘inner-worlds’

(Gabriel & Lang, 15 0), which we may otherwise be unaware of, or choose to ignore completely.

However it may also immerse the consumer so heavily that they forget entirely who they are and become whatever is on offer at the time. This can cause a person to completely alter their fashions, beliefs and tastes as and when a more desirable alternative is offered.

‘Identity, self, image, self-image and subjectivity threaten to become free-floating signifiers, easily substituting each other, merging and dividing up, losing their moorings and distinctiveness.’ (Gabriel & Lang, 15 )

In short consumerism is both a friend and a foe, its ability to create and destroy identities is only so because of the post-modern citizens constant battle for acceptance both from society as a whole and-perhaps more importantly- themselves.

‘I never had, and still do not have, the perception of feeling my personal identity. I appear to myself as the place where something is going on, but there is no ‘I’, no ‘me’. Each of us is a kind of crossroads where things happen. The crossroads is purely passive; something happens there. A different kind of thing, equally valid, happens elsewhere. There is no choice, it is just a matter of chance.’ (Levi-Strauss, 178 -4)


· Gabriel and Lunt; The Unmanageable consumer, 15; Sage publications

· Abercrombie; Authority and consumer society, 14; Routledge

· Bauman; Freedom, 188; Open University Press

· Bauman; Intimations of Postmodernity, 1; Routledge

· Baumeister; Identity Cultural change and the Struggle for Self, 186; Oxford university press

· Berger & Luckmann; The Social Construction of Reality, 167; Penguin

· Clammer; Aesthetics of the Self, 1; Routledge

· Davidson.M.; The Consumerist Manifesto, 1; Routledge

· Firat; Fragmentations in the Postmodern, 1;

· Freud.S. On Narcissism, 114; Hogarth

· Giddens; Modernity and Self-Identity, 11; Polity Press

· Langman; Neon cages shopping for subjectivity, 1; Routledge

· Levi-Strauss; Myth and Meaning, 178; Routledge

· Lunt & Livingstone; Mass Consumption and Personal Identity,1; Open University Press

· Marx; Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844, 17; Norton

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