Consuming Life: Zygmunt Bauman (Review Article)

Review Article: Bauman, Z. (2001). Consuming Life. Journal of Consumer Culture, 1(1), 9–29.

Photo Source: By Narodowy Instytut Audiowizualny — Zygmunt Bauman, fot. M. Oliva Soto, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45492371

This article review aims to simplify the reading and the understanding of Zygmunt Bauman’s article, “Consuming Life”, it aims to open this academic writing to the public and other fields’ readers by making it easier to understand a text that is built on grounded sociological fundamentals, which might often build a wall and represents an obstacle between society and sociologists. It is very ironic how the science dealing with social phenomenon and structures is left behind the curtains and is despised the most by individuals in other fields. Analyzing society is complicated and this complication is many times reflected in the complex texts, that unfortunately instead of struggling to understand the complex phenomenon, one finds himself struggling to understand the text itself. Studying Bauman’s article plays an important role in understanding the evolution of consumption and tracking how our needs shifted to desire then, to wishes and fantasies inflamed by produced anxieties and fears. Although the original article is not divided into sections, I have allowed myself to initiate the latter, to ensure a clearer vision of the text structure.

Tranquility vs. Passion

Bauman starts his article by highlighting the nature of the human being, referring to Pascal (1966) and Kierkegaard he states that humans are mistaken when believing that tranquility and peace are what they desire, rather humans actually are passionate about chasing, not achieving the goal itself but taking the journey itself, and once it is all over they tend to look for another journey and this goes over and over again. Tranquility on the other hand provides us with the required time and space which makes thinking about death and the essence of life inevitable, this is exactly why we tend to “keep our desires alive” as this distracts us from diving into a world filled with existential questions, so in sum, it is not the satisfaction, the destination or the goal itself that we are interested in rather it is the journey that we strive for.

Needs as the Main Purpose of Consumption

Zygmunt Bauman links this human nature — characterized by the strive of continuous satisfaction — to the “consumer society”. He first goes back explaining how consumption was before and then compares it to consumption today. According to him, the act of consuming was restricted to the function of meeting the biological and social needs of individuals, falling below the average consumption was socially perceived normal even ethical yet stepping over the line was not encouraged and even seen as a sin, here Bauman mentions Veblen’s perspective on consumption, a perspective that saw “conspicuous” consumption as an arrogant self-serving act, a means of attaining social honor by manifesting wealth. So while consumption was bound to certain elements, like satisfying certain needs, and while it was defined by certain functions, it had limits. Today those limits are broken and set free, now consumption is defined by itself and gained referential credit by its “pleasurability”.

From Needs to Desires

Bauman demonstrates how consumer society was designed and how consumption functions shifted from firstly being a server of fixed and survival needs, to desire. Desire, he says, is independent of needs, is bounder-less and requires no reference and no justification, by creating the “consuming desire of consuming”, consumers are being shaped and even created to be consumers that are guided by their desire rather than needs, because a consumer guided by needs would not be an active member in ensuring the continuity of consumption, this non-stop consumption in itself is bounded by a non-stop production that is so busy creating not only services and products but also “the desire” which is so hard to create and even harder to maintain, the excessive advertisements that haunt us everywhere, be it the street panels that we are forced to stare at while waiting for the traffic light or the radio, television, or all virtual platforms, it is a mechanism that ensures the long-lasting dream and the hypnosis that the consumer should never be awaked from.

From Desires to Wishes

Referring to Ferguson (1992:1996), Bauman adds that the next tactic in the consumer society is shifting from the desire to wishes, by liberating consumers’ wishes and fantasies the economic wheel is put under a more efficient factor that would provide a more solid background by ensuring a continuous consumption. The journey of consumerism is a long fight against the vast solid obstacles, using different methods and tactics aiming at first to partially melt the solids by bringing forward “desire” which was successful in ensuring consumers addiction but not sufficient in ensuring continuous entertainment and it is at this point that “wish” came into play being insatiable in nature, it was able to get rid of what was left of what Freud calls “reality principle”. The history of consumerism initiated as a war of “pleasure principle” vis-à-vis “reality principle”, in this war reality presented an obstacle and a limit to wishes, fantasies, and pleasure. Even though, in Modern capitalism, at first, breaking realities was the goal to be attained in a consumer society we find ourselves attending the ceremony of the marriage of these two old enemies, to make the visualization more clear we cite Bauman’s own words helping us to visualize the event by describing how consumer society “reconciled the reality and pleasure principles by putting, so to speak, the thief in charge of the treasure box” (Bauman, 2001).

Rationalizing the Irrational

Bauman asks the following question: “How did this wondrous transformation come about?” (Bauman, 2001) and then answers, this was achieved through the reclassification of human desires, and with capitalism coming to the conclusion that, exploiting the consumer was more beneficial than exploiting the producers, but we can say in our turn that today it is both and exploitation of the consumer and the producer, as the producer is in his/her turn a consumer, Bauman adds this discovery was put into practice and was intensified by setting the human fantasies free, propagating wildness and “Acting on Impulse” life-style, this of course results on an unstable and irrational living-conditions that are later on rationalized by putting both producers and buyers in position that seem rational in their nature, e.g. long-term investments, credit card, etc. while taking a credit seems like a rational act, it is actually irrational to spend more than one can provide, but we do not feel it in the business of everyday life, we do not stop for a moment and question how all these process goes through, so with such living conditions all these process seems rational to us.

A Society built on the Rationalized Irrational of Consumers

Fragility and risk that result from pleasure-seeking life have been reclassified from being a threat to the stability of social life to being its main support, the individual insecurities were used to maintain the patterns of the system by transforming it into a factor of reliability. The flexibility of human conditions that was initially created by encouraging İmpulse and Intuitions driven lifestyles were used in the construction of tough and resilient order. These insecurities are even used to add credibility to the system this was further clarified by using Bourdieu’s term “flexploitation” which reflects how today’s created flexibility is actually used against workers, using threats and fear of losing one’s jobs, offering temporary working positions which gives the task performed a sense of being of less importance and leaves individuals no choice but to accept working for low wages and under unfair conditions. “The rationality of consumer society is built on the irrationality of its individualized actors” (Bauman, 2001).

It is Most of all Not a Conspiracy, yet Simply: an Unanticipated Consequence

Bauman puts forward that “the policy of precarization”, even though it represents certain mechanisms and even though it is defined as a policy, this does not necessarily imply that it was employed by a certain body, a certain group, or designed to serve certain benefits, here Bauman criticizes the theories built upon conspiracy perspectives, theories that present consumers as victims, he finds them misleading by not showing the full image. Bauman explains further by raising the hypothesis that this could, for example, be carried out through the humans' response to rational or irrational conditions that are reflected on rational strategies, in other words, rational policies and strategies might be the result of reacting to rational or irrational life conditions.

“Unanticipated consequences” of human actions, denotes that “whatever is there in the world people inhabit is a consequence of their deeds, yet not the kind of consequence they expected or desired” Bauman p.18. According to Bauman, conditions under which consumer society is monitoring are the results of two centuries’ of unexpected consequences.

Trust, the Redefining Society, and Normalizing Instability

Referring to Barbara Czarniawska (1999), Bauman states that realistic novels that reflected the holistic assumption of the solid modern era were used as a way to reflect a solid world, representing individuals that followed the right paths and avoided the wrongs, this kind of novels reflected that era’s thinkers but given the conditions of the consumer society, these kind of novels are far from succeeding and even impossible to achieve as a task. Afterward, Bauman points out Durkheim’s emphasizes on how individuals tend to disconnect from the present, how by thinking and aspiring for the future they find meaning in the present, individuals looking for a way to escape emptiness, if for Pascal that is pleasure then for Durkheim that is the future.

While humans are mortal, societies are eternal, which offers us the chance to taste satisfaction that is long-lived. Mortals find their way back or never lose their way at the first place in society, by serving society, and leaving marks one takes into guarantee staying eternal even after death, by serving society one can give meaning to his/her miserable life. Dedicating oneself to society requires trust, as stated by Bauman — when citing Alain Peyrefitte’s (1998) recitation record, of Durkheim’s words — three trusts should be assured, self-trust, trust in others, and trust in social institutions, yet then again he underlines that these trusts are only possible where a system is solid and stable, not where Instability is the new stability as in the consumer society this stays far beyond imagination.

Bauman adds, when we think about society today it stays limited to our mere surroundings, friends, family, neighbors, the perception and the image of society today is narrowed, and so is its life-length, in such society we can only expect ephemeral/temporary satisfactions. The only long-living and stable body is one’s self in a society where nothing is meant or even intentioned to last forever, in Bauman’s words “In this world, putting all one’s eggs in one basket is no more the ultimate imprudence” (Bauman, 2001). In other words, going straight forward from point A to point B is no longer the risk-free path, rather surfing is the safest option. Long-term commitments on the other hand are only made possible under the condition of long-term security otherwise the former is considered a liability, in the consumer society there is a thirst for fast and repeated consumption, where the old — as Luhman (1998) was cited by Baumann — is buried by new and constant creations. The old does not attract attention anymore, in some cases it is even considered as a source of shame and embarrassment, the new of today is rapidly turned into old once — not an improved — a newer version of it is produced, we see many consumers buying a new iPhone every year although they don’t have many distinguished differences but rather are holding the one and important reliable judging factor of being “new”.

Society and Individuals Sharing the PlayGround

Bauman describes society to be moving from the keeper/warden to the player in the game of life, in its turn society embarks on a game full of risk and surprises other players with unexpected changes, in this case, individuals have no choice but to predict, be aware and awaits any kind of shifts and adjust accordingly. Since in the consumer society, society turns into one of the players, individuals are equally responsible for finding solutions to risks, staying on surf and successfully jumping the highs and downs becomes the only “realistic purpose”, so we end up with a “subjectivized and individualized risk”.

As a compensation to the irrationality of the “Lebenswelt” individuals are invited to criticize and judge according to their believed notions, the contradictions, and conflicts of expert, as a way of giving the individual a sense of rationalization that is produced in his own, but this on the other hand results in turning life itself and all its spheres into a consumer society, that is no different than the shopping activity which bound in principle to the ability to shop and in practice in the ability to manage. So in sum, judging and criticizing the crisis of all life spheres are based on each person’s notion, and since everyone has a certain system of principles and believes, this fulfills the first ability to have a notion, then the second ability which is criticizing and rationalizing. For example in the last two years, everyone became an expert by analyzing and providing different explanations of the source of the Covid, each explains it and tries to rationalize it her/his way, because according to Bauman, society is no more able to provide rationalizations of the produced irrationalities and here we end up with a society that is as equal as we are on risk-taking and crisis rationalization, we are witness of the alliance, Bauman says, of two irrationalities that reproduce itself through “the rationality of sellers’ calculations and the rationality of buyers’ life-strategies”.

From Wishes to Insecurities

According to Bauman, consumer markets today offer assurance that needs to be renewed whenever it wears off and guarantee of goods-replacement and money returns, the consumer market provides insurance of the future, today before tomorrow. It makes the choice of purchasing its services and products perceived as the right decision to make by referring to experts, research studies, and customer reviews.

Limited supply, editions, and series of products, under the slogan, “it is now or never”, is done openly by the seller and the customer is fully aware, that this game is honest, clear, and transparent. The seller announces openly his/her tactics, and the buyer accepts the terms and carries on hustling his/her infinite wishes and fantasies that he/she connects to through his/her consumption, the buyer ends up in a loop of beginning, quickly finishing, and starting all over again. According to Bauman this addictive game, of looking for the right item, this activity of finding the exact product you have been imagining, even though it might seem like it is the creation of your own imagination, in reality, it is the collection or a throwback from the images, marketing implemented in the brain through repetitive advertisements in all the spheres of our lives, so for example; when an individual says, “I will go to the shopping mall to look for a t-shirt that is black with white stripes or so and so”, he/she actually is not coming with a special taste, or an originally imagined style, rather it is a manifestation of firstly the accumulated image process from movies, video clips, ads, etc. and secondly, it is spatially defined, thirdly it is a standardized “t-shirt”. This is as if one says I want Fanta with some drops of Cola, while the choices are limited, decided-on, and restricted to certain varieties, all we are left with is to make the right mixture between these offered options and taste the fake pleasure of creating.

In a consumer society, looking for and finding the right product or service is the triumph of one’s survival on facing “life challenges”, e.g. “my biggest challenge is to find the right cabinet that would fit the corner of my bathroom. Bauman here again refers to Ritzer’s “action holidays” that are both characterized by being an escape from daily routine yet ensure a pre-planned journey and a stable temporary life-style, far from everyone yet in a walking distance from markets and restaurants. The sense of adventure in the consumer society is summarized in the craving for certainty and stability that we miss in our daily life.

Anxiety and fear is the fuel of the consumer society, the creation of continuous fear and risk became the mechanism used to create consumers, here we see the manufacture of dangers, prediction of disasters based on scientific findings that shall not be falsified or questioned, even today we are spectators of the fabrication of what is told to be contagious and dangerous disease, covid-19, with continuous release of different types of cures, that started with pills, followed by the first vaccine shot, the second, the third, the fourth, and the booster vaccine shot, so not limited to prediction, in a consumer, societies dangers can be created when no naturally developed ones are at hand, with one purpose, and that is selling us the cure to ensure the continuance of the economic wheel.

Conclusion

Understanding the evolution of consumption, from an activity that used to meet our needs to an activity that shifted to meeting our desires then wishes and finally remedying our anxieties and fears, represents a very important step in analyzing how the purpose of consuming has evolved from needs, which are more specific, local, and traditional by nature, to fear, which is more general and shared by all individuals regardless of their culture, customs or norms. While needs are more customized and more human-made, fear is a fundamental feeling shared by all Individuals. So we believe that apprehending how the main motives of consumption have moved from the specific to general, helps us understand the conditions that mediated the emergence of global consumption. These concluding notes are hypotheses that might be used for further research.

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