Constitution of Culture through Consumerism and the Illusion of Individualism
University of Colorado at Boulder
Writings of critical theory characterize power as disruptive to meaningful, progressive communication in many forums of contemporary interest. Among these is the impact on what has traditionally been considered one of the greatest opportunities for individual freedom of choice: the economic free market. Modern consumerism is characterized by its ability for self sustainment, which responds to feedback from the consumer and often results in greater choice. Considering increasingly complex economic conditions and levels of consumer spending, the potential for power structures to utilize consumerism as a means of developing a culture which serves the interests of those in power is greatly increased. Consumerism has moved beyond its traditional purpose of providing goods as directed by the marketplace to becoming the very foundation upon which culture is developed and providing those in power with a means for sustainment of their power.
This paper discusses empirical observations of contemporary culture and economics, which suggest that consumerism has become a means for those in power to construct a culture which sustains and promotes self-interested agendas. Specifically cited are Horkheimer and Adorno’s (1976) theory of culture industry and Holzer’s (2006) theory of political consumerism. Secondly, the paper will examine a how these theories are observed in an increasing collective acceptance that individuality is dependent upon consumer choices, as demonstrated by the illusion of individuality that an enterprise like the internet-based corporation Google has created. Lastly, a critique of the theories is offered which assess the reasonableness of conclusions drawn by Horkheimer and Adorno (1976) regarding the role of advertisement in the culture industry.
Horkheimer and Adorno (1976) argued that the very idea of culture has developed into a viable industry, which develops in congruence with economic trends. Specifically, they observe that mass production of goods is a means of needs satisfaction which consequently allows centralized powers control and manipulation of the individual. The multiplicity of preferences available to consumers cultivates a belief that each and every need can be satisfied by a specific product, creating a reliance of the consumer on the producer to recognize and tend to personal needs through their product. This places the producer, or rather the corporation, in a position of influence over the consumer. Mass production of products translates into mass production of ideas, making culture merely an industry which promotes the ideologies of those in command of it. Horkheimer and Adorner (1976) describe this branding of ideas through consumerism as the culture industry. The process by which this occurs is characterized by several factors, all of which reveal that the individual is not enabled, but rather striped of power, while the ruling few become more empowered.
The culture industry is foremost characterized as a monopoly; control over consumer preferences falls into the hands of a minor, centralized power. Economically, this power is identified as the corporate elite. The creation of meaning, ideas, and consciousness through product availability and product consumerism reflect the marketing interests of corporations. In reference to technology as a means by which the culture industry expands itself, Horkheimer and Adorno (1976) stated, "the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest." The creation and expansion of the culture industry is determined by the economically powerful. In addition to access, the available products are also determined by a select few. Holzer (2006) argued that the consumer believes himself to be in a position of influence over the market’s available products, but that this aura of reality is merely perpetuated by the politically powerful in order to maintain the illusion that the individual is in a position of influence. He stated, "consumers, after all, only have a ‘secondary relationship’ to the services and goods they buy. They depend on others to produce commodities for them – and thus on the choices made by those producers" (p. 405). The consumer is relatively powerless position when compared with those who actually create the products.
Secondly, the culture industry is characterized by production of commodities, which serve as an expression or representation of realities for the consumer. Individuals become connoisseurs of wine or opera or contemporary art not because these items alone enrich and broaden their taste and intellect, but rather interest in the culture validates a specific lifestyle which is viewed as desirable. Horkheim and Adorno (1976) expand on this point:
Culture and consumerism become wedded into a process, whereby the commodities hold value only to the extent that they validate the consumer’s desired status.
Application: The influence of consumerism on individuality
The above theories and their respective repercussions may be observed in reflection upon individuality, or rather the illusion of individuality, as constituted by consumerism. Of all internet search engine providers perhaps the most commonly used and popular is Google. Google holds as its mission the creation of standardized user-friendly systems of information processing, while also offering numerous opportunities to personalize one’s web experience. Based on culture industry theory, the following application assesses and criticize Google’s effect on individuality, consequential of its overwhelming domination of the web.
If, according to Horkheimer and Adorno (1976), products constitute the individual, then increased choices for product selection give consumers the seemingly perfect opportunity to express individuality through personal preferences. In addition to the recently popular Gmail Beta, Google has added GoogleApps, a web-based organizational package that includes a calendar, an interface for document storage, a personalized iGoogle homepage, and much more. Each application is designed to meet the users’ organizational needs and features multiple settings that allow the user to personalize the applications according to their preference. Google is arguably helping the consumer develop his or her own sense of identity through the use of its product. However, as made apparent by Holzer (2006), the illusion that the wealth and variety of products increases choice and autonomy actually masks the reality that power structures are actually exercising more control over the consumer. Development of individuality is in this case merely a result of accidental details of what the internet user prefers to see, not an exploration of autonomy and genuine individuality. Regardless of how different each user’s settings may appear Google still maintains ultimate control over the distribution, use of, and direction of the GoogleApps and to that end still receives the customership needed to remain the dominant search engine on the web.
Consumerism serves to support and strengthen the power structures that are already in place. Google may be considered an innovative, successful enterprise, but their interdependence with other large web players cannot be overlooked. Google is the web-based partner of Apple products and markets heavily for iPod and iTunes. Microsoft’s web browser competitor, Firefox, also merges with Google. It is not uncommon to find the user of Google is also a user of Firefox and owner of an iPod. While consumers may proudly define their individuality according to their loyal use of these products, their consistent support only serves to strengthen the super power formed by the trioship. Holzer (2006) described this by stating, "Not the individual consumer exercises power but a rather fragile and ephemeral ‘collective’ of aggregated and communicated choice" (p. 405). Accordingly, cross promotion of these products among one another’s customer bases communicates an obvious and seemingly unavoidable choice, thus perpetuating the control and power that Google, Firefox, and Apple have established within the internet community.
Critique: Is fascism a reasonable implication?
Correlation between economic domination and the emergence of the culture industry is naturally inclusive of advertising. It is at this point that Horkheimer and Adorno (1976) draw inaccurate comparisons between the past and reality of the present. In comparing the economic climates they argue that formerly "advertising performed the social service of informing the buyer about the market; it made choice easier and helped the unknown but more efficient supplier to dispose of his goods. Far from costing time, it saved it." In contrast, today’s "free market is coming to an end, those who control the system are entrenching themselves in it. It strengthens the firm bond between the consumers and the big combines." The comparison justifies their claim that advertising is not merely a means of informing but rather a visible symbol of social power. Corporations advertise in order to "guarantee that power will remain in the same hands." The premise on which this conclusion is drawn—the assessment of the free (or rather not free) market of today—leads to an inaccurate claim. So numerous and complex are the number of corporations on the market that the premise should be precisely the opposite, that the market is a place of economic freedom. Here it is important to consider the economic climate in which the scholars were cultivated, which was and is significantly more socialized and centralized by government control. Extreme capitalism, and therefore market freedom, has been deeply embraced in American culture and here we meet a threshold at which the application of this theory is overdrawn.
Secondly, to assert all advertisement is merely a collection of propaganda for reassertion of power is an unreasonable expansion. The exaggeration alludes to corporate fascism, which again is in congruence with most critical theories emerging from this time period and region of the world. While the modern American corporate climate asserts it power over again through domination of products, including the creation of culture, advertising still serves the purpose of making the consumer aware of the product’s existence. The argument for the critical scholar of cultural studies should not be of the potential for conspiracy to arise from advertisement, but rather that advertisement’s secondary purpose serves to communicate to the consumer how the product defines and enhances their cultural experience. Advertising not only informs the consumer, but suggests a way of life that is enhanced by the product. While it is not a claim of conspiracy or fascism, it resonates an equally unsettling reality.
Individuals are presented with the illusion that culture and consumer preferences are wedded into an inseparable unity and therefore consumerism represents the opportunity to exercise true individualism. This reality is observed in nearly all situations where a product exists. Google exemplifies how individual preferences can create an aura of individuality while still upholding the centralized power of the corporation. And while advertisement attempts to validate cultural identity it can be scarcely suspected of promoting fascist agendas.
Holzer, B. (2006). Political consumerism between individual choice and collective action: Social movements, role mobilization and signaling. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 30, 405-415.
Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (1976). The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception (J. Cumming, Trans.). In Dialectic of enlightenment (p. 120-167). New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.