Consumer citizen: the constitution of consumer democracy in sociological perspective.

VerfasserLamla, Jorn

1 Introduction

Currently, we are witnessing a resurgence of academic as well as political interest in the consumer. In view of the obvious problems of governance under conditions of a global market society, the question arises whether there is evidence for an emerging consumer democracy where consumers assume civic responsibility and exert a civilizing influence upon the economic realm. Consumers are traditionally associated with the private sphere whereas citizens are viewed as belonging to the public sphere. The figure of "consumer citizen" challenges such a clear-cut distinction (Negt/Kluge [1972, 7] already questioned it long ago). Yet, at the same time, the hybrid notion of "consumer citizen" perpetuates the distinction of public and private. Rather than rendering the distinction obsolete, it points to shifting boundaries and the lines of demarcation between public and private being redrawn as an outcome of continuous social struggles and negotiations.

Benjamin Barber (2007, 126, also 294 ff.), who sees a threat to democracy in widespread infantilization spurred by consumer industries, fears a dilution of the concept of citizen by lumping it together with the notion of consumer. (1) The political sphere, he claims, is experiencing a loss of autonomy--an autonomy that emanates from public deliberation and the setting of collectively binding norms, the sovereignty of which must be asserted against the economic domain. For this reason, Barber wishes for self-confident citizens of a democratic polity, whose individual mastery of life involves the ability of maintaining the differentiation of societal domains. Nonetheless, he too must take consumption as a facet of lifeworlds and life practices into account along with the problems it poses for civic involvement. We are at once consumers and citizens and hence have no choice but to somehow reconcile the two sides that make up our personality--be it through strict separation or by other means. The conception of consumer citizen serves to shed light on the forms such reconciliation may take--including the range of historical and empirical manifestations--not more and not less. (2)

In this article, I approach the question of whether and how consumers as "consumer citizens" establish consumer democracy by drawing on various theoretical building blocks from sociology. I will make use of the different dimensions contained in the notion of constitution, starting with the constitution of the social through action, through the politico-legal or institutional conditions constituting the consumer citizen, to the current state of the consumer citizen. Specifically, I will briefly discuss the consumer citizen in five steps: from the angles of general social theory, socialization theory, the theory of modern society, from the view of current social trends, and in the light of considerations from the theory of democracy. The Internet, as a new means of consumer networking, will serve as an empirical research area for exemplifying and specifying the theoretical considerations.

2 Social theory: the consumer citizen as a form of constituting the subject in everyday practice

At a first and general level of social theory, the question of how actors constitute the social will be addressed, which, as we all know, has been an object of considerable controversy in sociology. Approaching the issue from a theory of constitution (for instance Giddens 1984) implies that consumer democracy cannot be conceived simply as a self-sustaining institutional order; rather actors, in this case consumer citizens, must constantly produce and reproduce the structures of such an order.

This said, we must first of all note that from the perspective of social theory consumption would be gravely misconceived as a passive, heteronomous activity. Rather consumption practices involve elements of active action, just as the domains of work and politics do, which are much more likely to be associated with exerting influence, exercising power, and with change. Marx (1973 [1857], 477) already emphasized the complex entanglement of production and consumption. This line of reasoning can be further elaborated with the help of praxeological social and cultural theories. Accordingly, Michel de Certeau attaches crucial importance to practices of consumption for the constitution of a subject capable of acting autonomously. In "The Practice of Everyday Life" (de Certeau 1984), de Certeau, drawing on the late Wittgenstein's philosophy of language, points out that the everyday act of putting the given to use, be it commodities, language, cultural codes, urban spaces, technologies, or whatever else may come to mind, always inheres a potential for creative transgression, which represents an elementary component in anchoring political autonomy in everyday life. Thus, the consumptive practice of reading only appears to be a more passive use of language as compared to writing. For, the process of writing, according to de Certeau, by separating itself from the outside world upon which it acts to create something starting from a blank page subjects itself to a scriptural economy, which reproduces the modern technocratic power structure. De Certeau compares writing to the modern idea of political revolution, which "represents the scriptural project at the level of an entire society seeking to constitute itself as a blank page with respect to the past (...)." (de Certeau 1984, 135, emphasis omitted, J.L.) De Certeau opposes the practice of reading to forms of the political that become enmeshed in the codes from which they derive their power and effectiveness: reading is free to appropriate a text at will since nothing must be created. (3)

My intention at this point is to draw attention to the theoretical foundations that I suggest as a starting point for conceptualizing the figure of the consumer citizen. De Certeau's use-theoretical approach to everyday practice shows parallels to pragmatism, symbolic interactionism, and ethnomethodology--thus to a class of theoretical approaches that view any instance of action as containing the seed of potential social innovation and transformation. In emphasizing the contradictions of practice in time and space, he takes a distance to semiotic theories that view consumption and politics in terms of discursive coding. In a praxeological perspective, a conduct of life modeled after patterns dictated by the advertising and brand-name industries is more of a (pathological) borderline case than the normal case. For instance, the "yearning" of the modern individual rooted in romantic ethics would be misinterpreted when viewed as providing concrete guidance in acts of consumption, rather it is more appropriately understood as an element in the persistent set of problems that mark the conduct of modern life. It would be just as misleading to think of "imaginative hedonism", as Colin Campbell (1987) calls our common inclination for day-dreaming, as a stable form of practice that we routinely engage in in everyday consumption.

The constitution of the consumer citizen cannot be derived from discourses alone, as various historical analyses that have identified a formation of the present-day subject centered on consumption (Reckwitz 2006; Prisching 2006) would have us believe. In these approaches, the post-modern, consuming subject largely disappears into the greater cultural structures underlying consumerism and marketing. They treat it as if it were an empty receptacle to be filled and fully reduce its everyday acts to the level of executing culturally coded, routine consumption practices that can be read empirically from historical discourse formations. There are, however, serious objections to such a view (Lamla 2008e). And precisely because there is no doubt that dispositional shifts toward a consumer culture can indeed be observed-for instance, as exemplified by the "other-directed personality", which I will deal with below-the basic theoretical differences indicated above ought not be rashly passed over. It makes a difference whether we adopt a view of modern consumerism as a coherent and routine form of practice or if we are prepared to expect an intensification of contradictions and suffering, which might originate from the difficulties of narratively assimilating accelerated consumption rituals with the biographical meanings attached to life practices (Lamla 2008a).

The latter is exemplified in Eva Illouz's (1997) study on the relation of consumption and love. In the course of the commercialization of romanticism, consumption practices and love have entered a synthesis, which is not confined to certain social classes: the rendezvous in an exclusive restaurant, the joint trip abroad, or, very important in the USA, the evening spent together at the drive-in theater are all instances testifying to the fact that socio-cultural practices have evolved around consumption that have become pivotal for community, identity, and subject formation. It is indeed correct to describe the present in terms of a radicalization of tendencies of merging the economy and ways of life into hybrid forms. It would be mistaken though to interpret this as a process leading to a socio-culturally coherent form, as postmodern diagnoses of consumerism tend to do. As Illouz (1997, 178f.) illustrates in the narrative structure of the accounts given by her research subjects, attempts to work images of romantically charged love affairs and amorous adventures that transcend the normality of everyday life into a biographical storyline that describes the process of establishing and maintaining a true love relationship increasingly fail. At such points, chasms between a virtual world of images and signs, on the one hand, and experienced everyday practice, on the other, become apparent, which actors have to cope with pragmatically and biographically. In looking especially at the new phenomenon of online dating, where...

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