Jerzy Kochan

CONSUMPTION: Between Terrorism and Connoisseurship

CONSUMPTION: Between Terrorism and Connoisseurship


A spectre is hunting the world – the spectre of consumption….. The spectre called out by ubiquitous consumption in the late capitalist society, in the capitalism of the age of alterglobalism is not the spectre of the revolution and communism, but rather the spectre of captivation and incapacitation of homo sapiens by spontaneous changing their own body and life in instrument of realization of the consumer mission. Of course, a true consumer is insatiable and greedy for new impressions. In its most perfect form, consumption is not connected with real consumption and boils down to the sale/purchase deed and, as consequence, to the endless creation of the demand. The domination of the such cultural paradigm figure of new human being has to arise and arises troubles. For every humanist, the substitution of homo sapiens by consumer must create terror, just like changing cogito ergo sum into “ I shop therefore I am”.

That is why we witness many-colour social critique of consumerism. Contemporary consumer society is criticized by conservatives because of its demoralization, abandonment of all values for the benefit of cult of the possession and to become rich, for consumption satisfactions and individual enjoyment, They become the only one aim and meaning of life. In this situation God, Honour, Motherland but also Right, Truth and Justice appear to be a staled dummy fallen cultural tradition. Left wing critiques of the mass consumption society is not less decisive. They try to present more complicated theories and argumentation. But all of them are more or less forms of advanced critique of contradictions, paradoxes, logic of the late capitalism. They refer to traditional and very good grounded adaptations of Karl Marx`s theory of alienation, which seek causes of dehumanization and derationalization of social relations in the market economy existence and capitalist private property, as well as late Marx analysis of the commodity fetishism. There are still alive references to created by Herbert Marcuse` conception of one-dimensional society and a one-dimensional men. Astounding up-to-date are consumer society critiques originated in the sphere of ecology, critiques which in the contemporary forms are continuation of J. J. Rousseau`s troubles with progress of human civilization. The danger of ecological catastrophes and connected with them different social and political crises show us that globalization of turbo-capitalism as the result of expanded reproduction of liberal consumer society threatens not only soul of person and his dehumanized, alienated, one-dimensional “essence of human being” but may also lead straight to disintegration of ecosystems or even to danger for human existence in general.

The object of criticism is not only consumer society as integrity. There are analyzed and criticized its different fragments and processes: commercialization, reification, homogenization, McDonaldization … But central importance seemed to be attached to the crisis of the rational subject and rationality as a whole. In its essence it does mean disintegration and total disaster for person of enlightenment, disaster for individual subject conscious, which based on scientific rational image of the world has to be genuine homo sapiens, out grown from prior immaturity / I. Kant /, but also become citizen, society, state. The structure of civil society, with all its institutional forms of rational communication, seems to be smashed by consumer subject. The consumer subject logic of operation seems to be closest to logic of reaction by Pawlow`s dog or trumpeter from jazz orchestra salivating on view of a boy eating the lemon. In accordance with prospect of shopping and consumption, from the point of view defined by the desire of a full trolley in a supermarket, all moral norms, labor law and international law, religious precepts and prohibition, crack and become devaluated …..

It is not true that bombs and desperate loose man are the biggest terrorists of our epoch, they are not even presidents, who break international law, charter of UN, human rights and evoke wars with fantasy pretexts in different parts of our globe. The superterrorist in contemporary globalized world is consumption, an extended means of global society which drives global capitalism processes of reproduction. Consumption penetrats and terrorizes macro-world – which can fructify with wars … that can bear fruit wars which are led because of the necessity of brimming tank multicylinder gasoline guzzlers …but it penetrates also our subjectivity, appoints hierarchies of values, creates our sensitivity and produces human being as consumer.

There are really things to worry about …

So, it is so because consumption can not be reduced to simple physiological, economic or cultural phenomenon. Contemporary meaning of consumption is connected with fundamental changes in relations between production and consumption. The symptom of these changes is the fact of employing more employees in service than in production. That is why in the sphere of service we have to seek standards, models and examples which define paradigms of functioning of every spheres of social lives. The degradation of production and extension of consumption cause the fact that just examples, canons, matrixes and types of rationality from the sphere of consumptions become widespread and become obligatorily universal.

The whole social system, its fundamental ontology have to be strictly connected with consumer rationality. The world unmediated by consumption does not exist. Consumption becomes, in an imperial way, the principle of the whole social system including the function of species reproduction in biological meaning.

An individual is socialized in the world of consumption from the beginning and that is why consumption is for him/her from the start natural and objective world the rules of which are immediately universalized and made completely subjective. It is even hard to say about the colonization of childhood, the childhood is just structured and qualified utterly, without the rest and without any possibility of occurring any alternatives.


But the gloomy and shut prospect of consumer society can be analyzed in another way. An individual consumer who sometimes seems to be a defeat of enlightenment project of humanity appears to be not exactly evil. Different historical forms of junction social consciousness and economy, e.g. religion or ideology / nationalistic or revolutionary/ have no only glorious past. The religion in limits of feudalism protected social reality which is nowadays difficult to accept, religion did it approving crime, violence, death and war as forms of social disciplining . Religion wars, the ones connected with the crusades and evangelization even in very distant region of the earth and these in Europe, shook up contemporary world and ravaged big parts of continents. It was not better in the times of substitution secular ideologies for religion. Bumping nationalisms generated two world wars and genocide on the industrial scale. In the same way ideological confrontations inside national societies, stormy class struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are connected with train of wars, revolts and very often massacres. The case of the Paris Commune is severe particularly here .

Religion, patriotism and social revolution - how nice it could sound for us – exhibit from this point of view as historically very expensive and cruel forms of security of social reproduction, social cohesion or social progress. In juxtaposition with them the demon of consumption appears to be not so awful.

We can see the producer who socialized straight into consumption in one-dimensional globalized society of turbo-capitalism is transformed into a consumer, the subject with entirely accepted imperative of buying and consuming as fundament of personal existence. The necessity of consumption atomizes his manner of seeing the world, separates him from developed outlooks of live and ideologies, from the world of politics and sacrum, incorporates him to the rate race and semblance difference of the social consumption spectacle. This is the spectacle of mass culture and mass imagination which is far from ambitious visions from the Enlightenment and maybe worthless, trashy….. but also marked by characteristic for the kitsch innocence. Of course we also have there specific dramaturgy and adequate tragedy, ups and downs, defeats and underserved triumphs, antagonisms, conflicts and social contradictions. However, consumption compared with disasters attached to religion and ideology domination seems to be a qualitatively upper form of control and distribution of goods, the form less cruel and more civilized.

Researchers draw attention to the fact that in consumer society even dramatic traditional street disturbances have another form. Instead of street battles and attacks on offices and buildings of authorities, we can see robbery of stores. Freedom in consumer society is identified with freedom to consumption, also this luxury and prestigious one. The discrimination of consumption is considered as limitation of freedom and general degradation of human being. Consumption, fashion, logo create new space of social communication, sole throw which is possible to communicate as the whole.

It is also concerned with scientific creation. As it was written years ago by Jean Baudrillard, theory is not really theory, it is only the event . It does mean that theory can only exist if it can become the event, the commodity, the mass media product. Index Librorum Prohibitorum disappear , just like censorship, the barrier of presence is being a spectacle on consumer market, being the event.

It sounds dramatically, but chances for success, free from personified violence and subjected democratic consumer will, allows everybody to be glad of chance, the twin sister of which is hope. The compulsion of reproduction distributes itself on democratic audience and individual will, sub/jective seeking of pleasure. Of course, this what is wanted, what is desirable, what could be the source of pleasure is not neutral, but is always an element of terrorism of the world of consumption. But it is really hard to deny that we have there to deal with fundamentally dissimilarity of conflicts and social tensions. It is not really important that in the age of Enlightenment these arose a project of individual growing from immaturity into rational subject which fall down and its place was taken by a hypnotized purchaser of staged pleasures.

We have no illusions about subjectivity in history: in primitive community, in the epoch of ancient slavery, in feudalism or early capitalism. The modern consumer is now relatively less bloodthirsty and his existence conditions are uncomparably better. It shows historic, relative efficiency of the system of mass consumption which can be measured even by the population increase, infant mortality, statistic length of life…but also by abolishing capital punishment or equality of rights of citizens. All that restores the faith in the progress and reason on the different, more general level.

The acceptance of consumer society and approval of consumption as an engine of social reproduction of the whole social system can come so easily because in many countries the supplement of consumer society are institutions and forms of social life which make safe frames for market elements and consumer madness. Just like in boxing we prepare the ring for fighting, helmets and boxing-gloves in order to protect boxers from pain and injuries… we organize coaches and doctors as well as insurance and pensions… in the same way as the whole society and state/government but also multinational, international and supranational organizations for moderating and rationalization wild market elements do. The whole conception and reality of welfare state is nothing but this type of social praxis added to the consumer society. Without this the form of support consumer society can not exist.


If it is even the truth that more or less spontaneous critiques of consumerism are allergic reaction to the beast of dynamic developing civilization, from another point of view we can treat them as a normal product of modern civilization, which play the role of controller, critic and censor of social life, as a peculiar form of social autocriticism. In the same way we can classify these manners of treatment of consumer societies which consist in destroying in consumer paradigm as full, without reflection adaptation to the rules of the system. After all, it is the most popular attitude in the past and nowadays. Already old Hegel wrote that most people are punched at their heads without knowledge why, what for and from whom.

It seems that between these two versions, rejection and mimesis / mimicry , there appears the field for an other understanding of consumption and consumer societies from an individual consumer`s point of view, a place for new approach which create new type of rationality, connected with the Enlightenment dream in the space of consumer society.. Maybe it would be sensible if next to critic and apologist has to appear a connoisseur. Somebody who just like an expert of works of arts can distinguish good from bad, this what is useful, valuable, wise, beautiful, tasty, fresh, healthy from what is superfluous , bad, shoddy, ugly, trash, junk, harmful….. unhealthy…… expire , It is not a tourist or collector.

A connoisseur of art is not only an expert, it is also a player who use cultural codes made by art to communicate with other people. The mediation of communication by art makes language of communication more subtle, enriches accessible content and transfers, makes them more plastic and easier for individualization and single, unrepeatable assimilation. The character of consuming freedom of connoisseur in the world of commodity is very similar. The difference of the world of consumption is structured by individualized consuming praxis of connoisseur. who through the realization of his own “ I want” and its friend “I shop, therefore I am” makes not only a choice and gets satisfaction / “ I can get no satisfaction”/, but also mediated by consumption auto creation/self creation ??. He change his self into consuming cultural creature, rich with social content and implications.

What`s your car? What a nice sweater! What kind of music do you prefer? What a newspaper do you buy? Where are you going for holidays? Are you vegetarian? Do you like beer or whisky? Is it NIKE or ADIDAS? Which school have you chosen for your son? Can you play tennis? Do you boycott clothes with LOGO? Where do you live?

If we answer the questions like these ..and plenty of other awful questions… answer verbally or by practical consumer decisions we construct ourselves as a consuming subject and through it as a cultural subject and subject in whole. Our auto creation know-how depends on the degree of orientation in the world of consumption and mediated by the consumption orientation in culture. Our expertness, our connoisseurship fructify with the ability to creative giving meaning as the result of using opened by the consumption field of commodities and cultural meanings, which we can fragment for small pieces, stick together, redefine with full consciousness that we have here not to deal with our freedom and authenticity but only with choosing an offer or – in the best case – with variations realized on its elements. However, using these given matter we mould our identity, sensibility and uniqueness and we communicate about them in our relations with society, in interactions on the field of meanings through which we create our life strategy, our lot, our life…

The position of an expert, connoisseur, consumer awake in a way position of Aborigine on Australian desert or inhabitant of Amazonia. In the full of dangers world he moves easily and gracefully , seeing what other do not see, reading what other do not notice. He/she uses everything what the nature has created and the dominant impression of his/her observation is that he/she is all the time in the same organic way feel at home. But it is not a jungle or desert surrounding the consumer: he/she goes through the supermarket with a trolley, he/she is not hot on an animal trail but trail created by means of prices, promotions, sales, labels…he/she recognizes where he/she is located in the social space by ear-ring, tattoo, thick gold chain or tracksuit wearing unpretentiously by yob on the streets….

Of course our description of connoisseur – sketchy and a little anecdotic – is encumbered by the Enlightenment or even Descartes` perspective of individual subject. The contemporary consumerism is fundamentally discordant with Descartes` epistemological individualism / robinsonada / because it assumes that socialization in the world of consumption is realized through complex of different pedagogical practices / praxis /, which cannot be led to the system of education. Per analogiam, creation of the consumer exceeds limits of individual subject and divides itself on complicated world of social and cultural communication. It is written out on institutions and media, school and art, politics and self-education.

The existence of connoisseur as important for society social posture assumes existence of extended forms of organization and schooling and the possibility of their transformation into collective and political will, in the variety of forms of the civil society.


If we take a role of optimist we can speak about progress in the human history. People at last have learnt how to pacify conflicts and solve them on peace way or even more: on way which could be described with words like aesthetics, taste, expertness, connoisseur… In the subjective perspective it could lead us straight to understanding ourselves as the work of art/ artwork and our existence as art impressions, aesthetic ecstasy of auto - creation.

It is not any illusion. The real theoretical and social forms of such trends are made as well by philosophers, social scientists, as counter-cultural social movements.

Everything is fine in same way….

They manifest dynamic trends which permeate przenika, nasacza modern culture and perhaps show us fragments of the future social reality.

But I imagine that it is high time for ….as Michael Moore says:

The Awful Truth .

The problem of consumption as connoisseurship and figure of connoisseur appears in my world, in reality of global capitalism in the twenty first century. Most of the people of the world do not struggle against consumption, over consumption, hipper consumption, turbo consumption…but struggle with hunger, poverty, lack of clean water, ecological catastrophe, epidemic AIDS, exclusion and so on…

Social antagonisms and relations of exploitation during globalization clamour for new alternative order, alternative world, alternative culture….

This is not connected with the so called “Third World”. Favelas or their equivalents we can find over the window, the Third World is present in metropolis …

In Poland in 2004 …59% of society have income on the level below social minimum / about 627 PLN = 300 $ per person for month / and about 11% below minimum of existence which is generously calculated as 323 PLN = 150 $ per person for a month.

It is really difficult in these conditions to be unresponsive to terror of consumption, difficult to afford to be connoisseur…

If we have this type of self-consciousness, it is clear that our reflection on connoisseurship and being consumer- connoisseur take place in the special social scenery and take specific, peculiar meaning…a little analytic, a little ironic, a little futuristic ….

Dodano dnia:19 października 2013

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