Two Events in Consumption

In one of the units I am tutoring in this week the topic is shopping and subjectivity’. Bascially, the class is used as an opportunity to introduce students to conceptions of consumption and therelation between consumption and subjectivity in capitalist societies.

I am always on the hunt for understanding the ‘event milieu’ (as Negri and Hardt put it in Empire) of various practices and social situations. Normally I get annoyed by the identity-through-consumption rhetoric of de Certeau-influenced early 1990s cultural studies, and, well, I still get annoyed by it, but through discussion with students in the classes I have so far tutored, we have come up with a couple of provisional ‘events’ of consumption.

Beyond the alleged ‘freedom’ of consumer choice and the capacity of consumers to ‘tactically’ engage with commodities is the way in which consumers can be affectively mobilised into consuming. I realised this when one of my students described how she often entered the massive shopping malls with a ‘mission’. It came up in discussion of the perculiar subjectively of the ‘bored’ shopping mall dweller who could be interpellated on any number of levels. The student was countering the argument I was making regarding these ‘bored’ consumers as having a subjectivity akin to Agamben’s notion of a ‘whatever’ singularity.

A ‘mission’ involves a basic process of appetition: a conceptual prehension of a forthcoming event is integrated with a multiplcity of affective prehensions that define the experienceof trawling through clothes racks (for a special outfit for a special occasion) or finding a particular commodity (for a special gift for that special person). I began thinking about the role of shopping malls to work in a distributive fashion to reproduce the conditions of consumer discourse so as to produce a series of cultural events throughout the year that ‘inspire’ consumers to go on ‘missions’. I am thinking of birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Mother’s and Father’s Days, and of course Valentine’s Day. This rhythm of special days requires consumers to go on various ‘missions’ to fulfill the social requirements effected through the discourse of these cultural events in consumer culture. The shopping ‘mission’ here is an event of consumer culture.

Another type of event involves the ritual of ‘sales’ and what some consumers call ‘bargain hunting’. Hunting for a bargain is one thing, but shopping malls and big grocery stores manipulate the affective comportment of the bargain hunter by presenting them with ‘red dot sales’ and ‘dollar dazzlers’ throughout the store. This reproduces the actual space of the store as an intensive space through the territorialisation of commodities with the refrain of the ‘bargain’. Consumers hunt for a ‘saving’ off the regular price; a commodity found as a ‘bargain’ expresses a savvy consumer ethic. The intensive space of the grocery store or shopping mall territorialised by the ‘sale’ or ‘bargain’ modulates the affective disposition of consumers by intervening in the activation contours as affect circulates across the population of consumers either in store of virtually through the distribution of catalogues. In other words, the ‘sale’ or ‘bargain’ is more than a questionable exchange-based valorisation of a commodity, it is also a tool of affective modulation to inciteor mobilise consumersinto consuming. Economists call this ‘consumer confidence’.