Hugo Liu: 2004, The Efflorescence of the Superconsumer. Available
the most popularly understood sense of the word “postmodernism”
simply refers to the historical age of our contemporary period,
marked by information revolution, hyperglobalisation, consumerist
culture, and a slew of new risks, anxieties, and challenges. However,
among some, there is also the feeling that postmodern times represents
a new opportunity for individual empowerment, and this optimistic
view is perhaps most poetically embodied in Lyotard’s sense
of the word “postmodernism.” In The Postmodern Condition:
A Report Knowledge (1984), Lyotard characterizes the postmodernist
as a hero of sorts, an individual who has achieved a state of understanding
and awareness about the nature of knowledge, and one who has learned
to possess an "incredulity toward metanarratives (xxiv)."
Sympathetic to Lyotard’s conception of the postmodern condition
are Jameson’s optimism for the rise of a “new international
proletariat” (1991), and also to some extent, the timbre of
awareness and empowerment struck in the Derridian deconstructionist’s
questioning of the “structurality of structure” (1978).
The elemental spirit found in this alternate sense of “postmodernism”
is ultimately one of individual enlightenment.
that “postmodernism” can be thought of dually as our
contemporary period, and as a certain kind of individual enlightenment,
a curious opportunity for interplay arises. Can the existence of
the postmodernist age itself beget a postmodernist-enlightenment?
Taking contemporary consumerism as a metonym for our postmodernist
age, this article ponders how individual enlightenment might actually
effloresce out of typical consumerist experiences. I will develop
the notion of a protagonist superconsumer as the reification of
postmodernist-enlightenment in the consumerism phenomena.
times, any mention of consumerism or consumerist culture is met
with immediate derision and rebuke, and so, there is a certain sense
of irony in nominating such an ill-regarded phenomenon as a benefactor
(though quite unintentionally so) which might cultivate postmodern-enlightenment.
In this article, I take a neutral stance on consumerism as a sociological
phenomena, instead focusing on how typical consumerist experiences
can be viewed as an educational corpus which cultivates the ascension
of some naïve consumers to superconsumerism. And rather than
examining consumerist experiences at the granularity of purchasing
decisions, we will rethink these experiences at the granularity
of cognitive effect. Consumerist experiences, then, is given a working
redefinition as experience with the consumption of signs and of
cultural sign systems in the manner that Lacan and Barthes have
regarded those terms.
story of the superconsumer is of an initially naive consumer who,
through media bombardment, becomes desensitized to, and then irreverent
of cultural sign systems. Once the individual has deauthoritised
culture, she becomes freer to play (pun intended) with the fabric
of cultural sign systems, empowered to consciously exploit and construct
from cultural elements to better serve the self. Jameson’s
portrayal of pastiche and schizophrenic iconification of signs as
symptoms of postmodern times begins to describe how the bombardment
of media can desensitize individuals to signs. To the effects of
deauthoritising and irreverentialising culture, and teaching how
culture might be exploited as a substrate for self-construction,
I implicate three consumeristic practices prevalent in our contemporary
period and describe their cognitive phenomenology: the commoditization
of culture and the practice of cosmopolitanism; multicultural experiences
such as diaspora; and perspectivalism and its special instantiation
as interdisciplinarism in academia.
conclude these introductory remarks, I would like to offer that
in the postmodern age, there is a sense of anxiety and risk which
results from the destabilization and transformation of the essential
(or at least, once mythed as much) self into a nomadic and transient
idea. Within the notion of the superconsumer is a hope for the restabilisation
of self -- developing a certain comfort toward, proficiency with,
and even, fondness for being a nomadic and transient self who is
constantly adjusting and recentring herself as the fashion and media
-driven cultural fabric fluxes beneath her feet. The superconsumer
ceases to be a mere cog in consumerism machine but is instead afforded
with an opportunity to reclaim her capacity for first-person subjectivity,
creativity, and the will to power.
remainder of this article will be narrated in the following, mindful
order, each section preparing the reader for the next. First, I
situate the notion of superconsumer through comparative discussions
with sympathetic ideas like Levi-Strauss and Derrida’s bricoleur,
Jameson’s intertextuality, and Bhabha’s beyond. Second,
I introduce the notion of structuring principles of culture as that
corpus of knowledge and intuition which epitomizes the difference
between superconsumer and naïve consumer. Third, I will argue
that one of hyperglobalisation and mass media's profound effects
on the fabric of culture is the transformation of the manageable,
few, non-overlapping cultural systems of the pre-globalised world
into our contemporary period's chaotic, complex, and clashing universe
of cultural systems. I implicate mass media in creating and maintaining
this condition primarily through media's ability to create and sustain
artificial microcultures. Fourth, I define a naive consumer as an
individual who acquires and obeys media-produced cultural sign systems
cooperatively and unwittingly. The naive consumer is not yet aware
of the structuring principles of culture, but by virtue of being
constantly bombarded with the rapid production of cultural systems,
has an opportunity to ascend to superconsumerism. Fifth, I hypothesize
that the key to gaining awareness of the true structuring principles
of culture is repeated experience with the limitations, inconsistencies,
and shortcomings associated with having a singular cultural system.
I nominate three consumeristic practices prevalent in contemporary
times that are cultivating increased awareness of structure -- cosmopolitanism,
multiculturalism, and perspectivalism/interdisciplinarism -- and
elaborate from a cognitive science point-of-view, on how their practise
educates an individual on the structuring principles of culture
by emancipating her from the authority of culture, and teaching
her to exploit culture for her own empowerment.
superconsumer, bricoleur, intertextuality, and beyond
concept of superconsumer presented here is also resembled variously
in the literature by Levi-Strauss and Derrida's bricoleur, Jameson's
postmodern intertextuality, and Homi Bhabha's "beyond."
The Savage Mind (1962), Levi-Strauss reveals the bricoleur as someone
who doesn't care about the purity and stability of the condition
of the cultural system to which she belongs. The bricoleur opposes
the engineer, who builds either stable systems or none at all. In
his 1966 lecture entitled, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the
Discourse of the Human Sciences" (1966), Jacque Derrida famously
adopted Levi-Strauss's bricoleur and its practise as bricolage as
an important strategy for the postmodern deconstructionist. Since
Derrida characterises that the reality of myth (and thus of all
aspects of culture) is that it is inherently unstable and flawed,
recognising its flawed nature and abdicating claims to absolute
rationality is ultimately a heroic and powerful act. The strategies
and beliefs of the bricoleur allow her to thrive in this inherently
unstable cultural world and achieve a mythopoetical power, whereas
the engineer cannot cope with the inconsistency inherent in culture,
and being riddled with cognitive dissonance and fear of hypocrisy,
will ultimately give up. The superconsumer finds comradery in the
pragmatic spirit of the bricoleur. By gaining proficiency over the
structuring principles of culture, the superconsumer realises, as
the bricoleur does, the instability inherent in cultural systems,
and transcends her need for rational consistency to achieve a pragmatic
purpose of maximally exploiting the cultural systems for personal
gain. The superconsumer is cultivated from and arises out of our
contemporary period's media-driven consumerism, and thus, can be
thought of as the contemporary instantiation of the bricoleur.
resemblance can be found in Jameson's observations on postmodern
intertextuality -- that in today's consumerism, two postmodern features
are pervasive: the stylistic use of pastiche, or blank parody; and
the schizophrenic iconification of signifiers. In "Postmodernism
and the Consumer Society," Jameson says of pastiche:
what would happen if one no longer believed in the existence of
normal language, of ordinary speech, of the linguistic norm (the
kind of clarity and communicative power celebrated by Orwell in
his famous essay, say)? One could think of it in this way: perhaps
the immense fragmentation and privatization of modern literature-its
explosion into a host of distinct private styles and mannerisms-foreshadows
deeper and more general tendencies in social life as a whole. Supposing
that modern art and modernism-far from being a kind of specialized
aesthetic curiosity-actually anticipated social developments along
these lines; supposing that in the decades since the emergence of
the great modern styles society has itself begun to fragment in
this way, each group coming to speak a curious private language
of its own, each profession developing its private code or idiolect,
and finally each individual coming to be a kind of linguistic island,
separated from everyone else? But then in that case, the very possibility
of any linguistic norm in terms of which one could ridicule private
languages and idiosyncratic styles would vanish, and we would have
nothing but -stylistic diversity and heterogeneity.
is the moment at which pastiche appears and parody has become impossible.
Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique
style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language:
but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody's ulterior
motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without
that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared
to which what is being imitated is rather comic. Pastiche is blank
parody, parody that has lost its sense of humor: pastiche is to
parody what that curious thing, the modern practice of a kind of
blank irony, is to what Wayne Booth calls the stable and comic ironies
of, say, the 18th century.
effect of pastiche as an emerging postmodern phenomenon is that
meaning no longer lies in the text itself. Everything that could
be said has already been said, and so meaning shifts to intertextuality,
the space between texts, where interpretation -- active, personal,
and transient -- is not so much prescribed by the text as it is
inspired by it. Jameson also observes the increasing iconification
of signifiers as a schizophrenic experience.
I want to underscore, however, is precisely the way in which the
signifier in isolation becomes ever more material - or, better still,
literal - ever more vivid in sensory ways, whether the new experience
is attractive or terrifying. We can show the same thing in the realm
of language: what the schizophrenic breakdown of language does to
the individual words that remain behind is to reorient the subject
or the speaker to a more literalizing attention towards those words.
Again, in normal speech, we try to see through the materiality of
words (their strange sounds and printed appearance, my voice timbre
and peculiar accent, and so forth) towards their meaning. As meaning
is lost, the materiality of words becomes obsessive, as is the case
when children repeat a word over and over again until its sense
is lost and it becomes an incomprehensible incantation. To begin
to link up with our earlier description, a signifier that has lost
its signified has thereby been transformed into an image.
views the increasing iconification of signifiers in postmodern works
dually as a pathology, a feeling of loss and an "unreality,"
but also as an aesthetic phenomenon characterised by a dazzling
parade of timeless and meaningless images, an ethereal escape from
the grasps of signification. Pastiche and the schizophrenic defamiliarisation
from signifiers epitomise contemporary consumer experience. These
are the kinds of experiences, which in my assessment, reveal the
inconsistencies, absurdity, and false-centeredness of cultural systems.
They serve as an experiential education for naive consumers about
the structuring principles of culture, and cultivates the rise of
superconsumerism, which is at once the apotheosis of creative consumerism,
and of a mature postmodern condition.
final resemblance is found in Homi Bhabha's "The Location of
Culture." Bhabha introduces his notion of "beyond"
as an idealisation of the postmodern defiance of singularities of
description such as well-established stable subject-positions like
age, gender, and sexuality.
is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need
to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities
and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in
the articulation of cultural differences.
'in-between' spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies
of selfhood - singular or communal - that initiate new signs of
identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation,
in the act of defining the idea of society itself.
Bhabha, the in-betweenness of cultural differences become a source
of fodder for original subjectivity and beyondness. For the superconsumer,
cultural difference is one of several important sources of insight
into the inconsistencies and shortcomings of cultural systems (as
we will rigorously demonstrate), which educates the superconsumer
and familiarises her with the flexible nature of structuring principles
for cultures. It is this familiarity and ability to flex and exploit
cultural structure to serve one's own goals and purposes which empowers
an individual to restabilise her self and achieve the postmodern
situated the superconsumer amongst the sympathetic ideas of bricoleur,
intertextuality, and beyond, we turn our attention to creating some
working (re-)definitions of terms that will be useful to the examination
of consumerist experiences as cognitive phenomenology.
principles of culture
notion of "culture" encompasses many things which are,
on the surface, very different. In classical usage, a culture is
something which characterises an ethnic group, or a nation. But
it also means, more generally, the commonality and shared context
which identifies any group of people. Levi-Strauss defined culture
in opposition to nature; whereas nature is universal, culture are
simply the norms of a social organization. We can further generalise
the notion of culture as a meaning system shared by any group of
people. Under this broader definition, examples of "cultures"
encompass at least, inter alia, "Western Culture," "Pop
Culture," "Hippie Culture," "Cyber Culture,"
and "Academic Culture." Generally, the smaller or more
transient a culture, the harder it is for that culture to stay named
and thus, alive in the collective social consciousness. However,
as we will see later, mass media is a masterful inventor and sustainer
of cultures, even magnifying those of the smallest size.
culture embodies the shared context of a people, and this is well-represented
as a cultural system. A cultural system is the fabric of beliefs
and logic which govern a particular culture. It can also be thought
of as a language whose words are that culture's significant concepts,
and whose syntax consists of the culturally accepted chains of reasoning
and argumentation. Indeed, many cultures have their own natural
languages, which richly reflect the intricacies, assumptions, and
values of that cultural system.
important way of conceiving a cultural system is in terms of the
Lacanian language of signs, signifiers, signified, and signification
chains. Cultural systems are particularly well-represented by viewing
culturally significant tokens as signifiers and signs, and the logic
of the interpretation of these tokens as the signification chain,
leading to the terminus of the signified, or, underlying meaning.
In "The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious," Lacan
himself suggested that a culture is equatable to the sign system
of its language:
Reference to the experience of the community, or to the substance
of this discourse, settles nothing. For this experience assumes
its essential dimension in the tradition that this discourse itself
establishes. This tradition, long before the drama of history is
inscribed in it, lays down the elementary structures of culture.
And these very structures reveal an ordering of possible exchanges
which, even if unconscious, is inconceivable outside the permutations
authorized by language.
the result that the ethnographic duality of nature and culture is
giving way to a ternary conception of the human condition - nature,
society, and culture - the last term of which could well be reduced
to language, or that which essentially distinguishes human society
from natural societies. (The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious)
Lacan originated the notion of a language of culture, others after
him have made the idea more explicit. Roland Barthes, for example,
nominates a collection of sign-systems to explain cultural orders
like the fashion system, the film system, and mass culture in general.
(Barthes, 1977). In this manner of characterisation, Barthes is
already beginning to relax the definition of a cultural system to
encompass specific institutions like the fashion system.
the world is seen as having a diverse and interwoven collection
of cultural systems, each allowing us to interpret the world in
a different way, then the fundamental tenets which allow us -- to
compare interpretations generated by different cultural systems,
to analyze the different assumptions and consequences of each, and
to prefer one interpretation over the others given our personal
context -- these enabling tenets constitute the structuring principles
which govern the physics of a culture system. An individual who
gains proficiency with these structuring principles would have the
ability to maximally exploit the resources of different cultures
in the mindful construction of self.
the structuralist articulation of the binary opposition, whose exploitation
is the key technique underlying deconstruction, has proven to be
a powerful structuring principle it is certainly not the be-all
and end-all principle which structures culture. Deconstruction exploits
contradictions in the ways that one of the terms in an opposition
is culturally privileged, but the technique does not purport to
theorise the larger framework of how cultural knowledge gets represented,
encoded, maintained, or revised out of the cultural sign system,
or on how different cultural systems interact via combination, recombination,
dominance relations, or on how truth (relative to the cultural centre)
is maintained. The sociological line of research into the cultural
production of signs through the fashion system is beginning to shed
some light on this question, but admittedly, a deep theory of the
representation of cultural knowledge will encounter fundamental
epistemological questions on the nature of knowledge and of representation.
from binary opposition, there must be other structuring principles
at play, which, to recapitulate the aforementioned, allow us --
to compare interpretations generated by different cultural systems,
to analyze the different assumptions and consequences of each, and
to prefer one interpretation over the others given our personal
context. We can posit their existence because we implicitly invoke
these principles whenever we engage in cultural and cross-cultural
deliberation, however, it is unclear how articulatable these structuring
principles are as a group. Some principles are yet to be articulated,
while others, such as those which govern our ability to prefer one
cultural interpretation over another, which are likely to involve
the invocation of gestalt (or high-feature space) reasoning that
is unlikely to ever be amenable to simple linguistic articulation.
Think, for example, of the difficulty and risk of error involved
in articulating something as ungraspable as one's own aesthetic
sensibilities. Yet, just because we possess no clean linguistic
articulation for structuring principles do not detract from their
reality to us. After all, we can imagination, for example, that
a small network of neurons in a perceiver's brain is trained through
experience to embody some structuring principle that allows us to
make comparisons between two cultural systems. However, such a neural
network is opaque to inspection, and not likely to be linguistically
articulatable. That neural networks can encode concrete rules yet
remains opaque is well noted in the simulation of neural networks
in Artificial Intelligence research.
these principles may not be articulatable, then why call them principles
at all? Admittedly, this is partly for lack of a better word. They
could be called a physics, but that unnecessary ascribes profundity
to a type of cultural understanding that is at best, human-centric
and heuristic. They might be called heuristics, but that seems to
deny that the powerful commonalities of techniques which transcend
individual minds. And of course, the name, laws, is imponderably
distasteful to the postmodern sensibilities. So, we keep the term
structuring principles, but understand it cum grano salis.
the conclusion is valid that some deep structuring principles have
not been articulated or may be difficult to ever cleanly articulate,
then consequent from that is the realisation that these principles
cannot be taught or told to individuals through direct instruction.
Instead, we must realise proficiency with these unarticulatable
structuring principles through first-hand personal experience in
dealing with the limitations and inconsistencies of cultural sign
systems. Later in this article, we implicate consumerism as playing
a major role for purveying these kinds of educational (?) experiences,
and we nominate a few kinds of consumeristic practices which have
this cultivating effect.
fabric of cultures
live at various levels of granularity. There are ethnic cultures,
cultures grouped around lifestyles and interests, around nostalgia
for things past, around philosophical beliefs, and scientific disciplines.
Wherever there is a point of convergence of self identification,
there inevitably exists a culture. Cultures, however, are also inter-related,
sharing overlaps with and opposing other cultures, belonging to
a hierarchy of cultures, or evolving out of another culture. If
we were to arrange all the cultures into a grand tapestry, we would
have a rich fabric of cultures. One immediate question we might
ask is, what are some characteristics of the gestalt fabric of cultures?
I asserted that a cultural sign system is one suitable technical
representation of a culture. A sign system keeps an inventory of
all the signifiers (plus their oppositions and the privilege relationship
between each of the pairs), signifieds, referents, and signifying
chains epitomised by a culture. Of course, the analysis below does
not call for the articulation of such sign systems for existing
cultures but merely requires that such a conceptualisation of culture
is sensible. For the purposes of conceptualising the rich fabric
of cultures, we have think about how cultural sign systems can be
connected dyadically along various dimensions of relatedness.
we visualised the resulting image of the fabric of cultures, what
might it look like? Would it be neat and clean with few connections
and overlap, or impossibly cluttered, fractured, pan-granular, and
chaotic? These questions are not meant to be a part of some rigourous
analysis. Given that we have defined culture in a general sense,
it is easy to imagine how the overall fabric would be quite complex
and chaotic. It is however, interesting that some scholars have
painted what is perhaps an overly immaculate picture of cultural
sign systems. Perhaps this was quite unintentional and simply an
artefact of clean argumentation, but the danger is that we run the
risk of essentialising the notion of sign systems, which would surely
be a step back.
"The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious," Lacan portrays
language and culture as forces of oppression, and the subject quite
hapless, as "the slave of language." The subject is in
fact, constantly trying to escape the censure of language and culture.
to come back to our subject, what does man find in metonymy if not
the power to circumvent the obstacles of social censure? Does not
this form, which gives its field to truth in its very oppression,
manifest a certain servitude inherent in its presentation?
goes on to distinguish between the letter (language / culture) and
the spirit (unarticulated thoughts) and characterises their relationship
as: "the letter killeth while the spirit giveth life."
I take interest in Lacan's portrayal of the oppressive nature of
language and culture. Technically of course, he is right to say
that our thoughts are modulated by language. But is language strictly
equivalent to culture? And which culture does Lacan mean? In our
contemporary period, we live in a melting pot of cultures, where
access to the world's cultures and cross-cultural influences abound,
and even within Western culture itself, the language of subcultures
abound plentifully, seemingly filling every niche of belief. The
"obstacles of social censure" can certainly be circumvented
by adopting the language of a more sympathetic culture. In a sense,
access to the world's cultures should alleviate some of Lacan's
concern, as it has had a liberalising effect on the condition of
thought. In his portrayal of language and culture, Lacan may have
unintentionally conveyed that language (and culture) is monolithic,
that social values are homogenuous, and that culture is quite inescapable.
In fact, a look at today's English language (and American culture)
reveals a surprising diversity and expressiveness, reflective of
the heavy cross- and multi- cultural influences that have entrenched
themselves in language.
failing to speak of the diversity of language (and thus, of cultural
sign systems), Lacan perhaps painted an overly homogeneous picture
of the cultural language space. In fact, the subcultural phenomena
in media-driven consumeristic American culture have rendered the
English language extremely flexible, where it is almost always possible
to find a subcultural dialect to thwart whatever "obstacles
of social censure" which remain.
Lacan, Roland Barthes may have also inadvertently trivialised the
fabric of cultures. In Mythologies, Elements of Semiology, and The
Fashion System, Roland Barthes portrays the landscape of cultural
sign systems as harmonious, quite ontologically neat, and lacking
in overlap and contradiction. It is not that he denies that cultural
sign systems like the garment and film systems are messy, but by
giving these very clean examples, whose rules and boundaries are
clear and without apparent overlap or contradiction, Barthes may
be conveying a false sense of simplicity. Barthes has the opportunity
to, but does not give examples of sign systems whose domain of signifiers
or signifieds overlap, or an example of two sign systems whose values
contradict each other, so there is an insinuation through absentia.
reality of the fabric of cultures in contemporary times is that
there are in fact multiple cultural and subcultural, stable and
transient systems of signs which overlap in both their inventories
of signifiers, and of signifieds. Whereas perhaps in pre-globalisation,
cultural sign systems were quite separated, each dominating monolithically
without competition in their respective societies, the social milieu
resulting from hyperglobalisation, mass media, and new urbanism
is one of pluralism and cosmopolitan perspectivalism. Gone are the
days of rigid and singular rules for social interpretation. This
can be seen in the declining prominence of traditionally salient
social features like the social classes that were so much the focus
of the social theories of Veblen (1899) and Simmel (cf. Wolff, 1950).
First social class was replaced by a host of newly important subject-positions
like age, gender, and eroticism (Davis, 1994) which became relevant
to the collective culture of Western society in the twentieth century
(but at least Western culture progressed synchronously and coherently
through the decades). But now, intraculture synchronicity seem to
be absent altogether, as hyperglobalisation has borne witness to
new heights of pluralism in the factioning of monolithic cultures
into "societies" of subcultures and social niches.
social models presuming societal synchronicity, such as the Fashion
System (Barthes, 1990), now fail to explain contemporary fashion
(Davis, 1994). Also, the cross-cultural influence between Western
and other societies have reached a tipping point where all societies'
cultural systems have been pigeonised and their complexities increased.
What has emerged from all of this is a highly complex and fractal
society of cultural sign systems, reflecting the complex and fractal
nature of societal subculturing and cross-cultural blending. In
short, instead of Barthes's insinuation that there are only a handful
of neat and non-overlapping cultural sign systems, contemporary
times can be better characterised as being associated with a chaotic,
complex, and fractal society of cultural sign systems.
was this chaotic, complex, and fractal society of cultural sign
systems created, and how is it maintained and grown? The answer
perhaps best lies in mass media. Even as a linguistic token, "mass
media" no longer fully characterises the extent of media's
pervasiveness and impact on society and thought. Mass media is not
just one media outlet for the masses anymore; it is perhaps fair
to say that today, mass characterises the extremely large quantity
of media outlets in existence today, catering to (and indeed, sustaining)
every social niche and subculture. Consider that today, both cable
and satellite television companies offer over 200 distinct channels
of programming, and that in 2004, there are over 23,000 magazines
in active, national circulation in the U.S. (source: ASME website).
Essentially, mass media has become extremely efficient at catering
to, sustaining, and sometimes even creating social niches.
niches exist at many different granularities. At the largest granularity
would be something like "pop culture," vast and pervasive,
yet legitimately characterisable as a culture because it possesses
a distinct sign system (albeit vast, and rapidly changing). At a
medium granularity are subcultural niches, examples including, inter
alia, raver subculture, preppy subculture, inner-city subculture,
cyber subculture, and avant-garde subculture. However, the most
novel affordance of mass media is the niches at the smallest granularities,
what I refer to as microcultures, can really be sustained and legitimised
in the sense of qualifying as a culture. A microculture is a culture
built around a single event or interest, such as, e.g., NASCAR,
video games (begets gaming culture), travelling (begets jetset culture),
us for a moment, consider golf more closely. Historically, a sport
was something that was played by many people occasionally and casually,
and professionally by a few. While it was mostly affluent people
who played golf early on, the sport itself did not necessarily define
the identity of this class of people. With the perfection of mass
media, and in order to seize the marketing opportunities of golf,
a media-televised sport with a large fan base, golf became increasingly
portrayed as a lifestyle, and the media populated a microcosm of
narratives defining what this lifestyle is and should be. Progressively,
what started out as a singular cultural sign signalling affluence
and leisure in the affluent-leisure subcultural sign system, was
elaborated into a media-ersatzed microcultural sign system describing
a whole lifestyle of golf. Golf became an identity and culture in
and of itself, and this microculture is sustained and grown by an
elaborate media fabric consisting of phenomena ranging from network
television channels broadcasting golf tournaments; to a cable golf
channel; to numerous endorsed spokespersons like Tiger Woods and
Greg Norman who re-narrate golf from sport into a state-of-being;
to the 109 nationally circulated golf magazines in 2004. There are
even at least 5,000 websites on the web devoted to various aspects
of golf -- the sport, the industry, the lifestyle (source: dmoz.org.),
and not surprisingly, even this media-constructed microculture of
golf is birthing sub-microcultures of its own, such as the gay,
lesbian and bisexual golf community, and a cyber community focused
on "fantasy golf." What we discover is that the potential
for spawning subcultures is well-characterised by endless reflexivities
and recursions, all made possible by mass media.
simple, monolithic cultural sign systems became elaborated by mass
media into a chaotic, complex, and fractal society of cultural sign
systems is only half of the story. Another striking parallel development
is the growing reliance of the Self on this pervasive, mediated
universe of signs. The driving force behind this is twofold. First,
the increased availability of mediated signs led to a natural increase
in the exploitation of these mediated signs in social communication.
Second, the maturation of postmodernity in Western culture has encouraged
Western societies (and via media propagation, to Eastern and other
societies) to embrace the notion of self-determination in the United
States (Grodin & Lindlof, 1996), and to reject grand narratives
in favour of constructed mini-narratives, as Jean Francois Lyotard
self-determination and self-construction requires a vast and diverse
substrate, a role played perfectly by the universe of mediated signs.
Constructing the self on top of a universe of mediated signs gives
rise to a dichotomous consequent: some individuals will construct
the self passively, almost allowing themselves to be constructed,
while other individuals will become proficient as more active constructors
of self. These passive selfs might be called naive consumers, and
the active selfs superconsumers.
to the former, these (many media cynics would say "most")
people, the universe of sign systems is so vast and complex that
for the most part, they define themselves within a small handful
of harmonious sign systems, following one or two media-prescribed
narratives in constructing the Self. Many scholars point the finger
at the dominance of mediated pop-culture for manipulating and prescribing
self-determination. To put it cynically, the media controls people
by controlling pop culture. This is of course, all too reminiscent
of Marx's alienation, Simmel's "objective spirit," and
an Orwellian 1984.
avoid these cynical characterisations, I will refer to the phenomena
as "naive consumption," where I mean consumption to refer
to the acceptance and obeyance of cultural sign systems. By naive,
I mean that some or most people accept and obey a cultural sign
system for the pragmatic purpose of living a typical life. These
individuals need only obey a few, non-overlapping, authoritative
cultural sign systems. They are not driven or motivated to acquire
more sign systems than they need to live a typical life, and in
fact, the acquisition of more sign systems may be quite undesirable
if, for instance, the new sign system overlaps and conflicts with
an existing sign system already endorsed by the person, because
the perception to the naive consumer is that the presence of any
conflicts leads to unnecessary and undesirable cognitive dissonance.
To be clear, we are making an underlying assumption about the praxis
of a "typical" life versus an "extraordinary"
life. We assume that in a typical life, transcendence of naive consumption
is both uncommon, and pragmatically counterproductive (unless of
course, one's self-realisation leads into a career as a scholar
or intellectual). Additionally, naive consumers are probably not
overly conscious of their role as consumer at a meta-level, nor
are they likely to be oversensitive and sceptical of the media which
progenates the sign systems they subscribe to.
retrace our steps through this section thusfar, I have first argued
that Barthes's unintentional presentation of a few, non-overlapping,
monolithic, culturally grounded sign systems should be replaced
with a notion of chaotic, complex, and fractal society of sign systems.
In supporting this argument, I pointed to the trends from simple
social descriptions of class-structure; to slightly more elaborate,
temporally changing, yet still societally synchronous and consistent
descriptions; to today's post-hyperglobalisation state of chaotic
pluralism. Second, I asserted that the chaos and complexity of the
fractal society of sign systems is the direct result of the mass
media's ability to create and sustain microcultures. Third, I have
characterised the Self's increasing reliance on the universe of
mediated signs in self-determination and I have portrayed that some
or most people are "naive consumers" who know only a small,
harmonious, practicality-necessitated fraction of all the mediated
sign systems. Next, I will further develop the concept of the "superconsumer"
introduced earlier, establishing the relationship between the superconsumer
and naive consumer, explaining the path of ascension through encounters
with the structuring principles of culture, and explaining how the
superconsumer epitomises the postmodern condition as experienced
by the populus. As a caveat, the discourse of argumentation will
shift somewhat, in the next section, to include cognitive science,
in order to facilitate a more technical analysis of the interaction
of sign systems.
insight that the postmodern condition is a state of understanding
begs two questions. How can this state of understanding be attained?
And is it only to be attained by the intellectual vanguards of society,
or does this state of understanding pervade the populus? I have
argued that the postmodern state of understanding is, at the very
least, beginning to manifest in the populus, and I have nominated
consumerism's cultivation of the superconsumer as playing an important
role to this end. Mostly without formal education on the limitations
of cultural sign systems or on the theory of deconstruction, the
populus of contemporary consumerist societies are nonetheless receiving
an implicit education on the nature of cultural sign systems, as
they are massively and incessantly baraged by signs, driven by fashion,
capitalism, and the globalisation of cultures. While some (or most)
consumers will no doubt continue to consume naively, allowing them-selfs
to be passively constructed by the machinery of consumerism, others
(or a few) will rise to the occasion, leverage their intense experiences
with consumerism, and become so proficient with the structuring
principles of culture that they become the culturally pragmatic
bricoleur, develop "an incredulity toward metanarratives"
of consumerist marketing machines, and gain the power to restabilise
the self in spite of being nomadic and transient, much as the surfer
is able to stand steadfast as she maneuvers the instability of the
waters below her. This emergent critic is the superconsumer, a pragmatist
and an exploitor-of-the-System par excellence, ironically, cultivated
from the machinery of consumerism itself.
understand the superconsumer, we must first understand how the superconsumer
as an individual who became. In light of the fact that I have posed
the superconsumer as someone who has become proficient with the
structuring principles of culture and has leveraged this proficiency
to further her self-awareness, it seems most sensible to talk about
the path from naive consumer to superconsumer as a story of education.
Some of an individual's particularly salient experiences with consumerism
have educated her about how culture works (and does work). And as
I suggested earlier, the difficulty in articulating the structuring
principles of culture makes direct formal instruction formidable,
and thus, the individual's first-hand encounters with the clashing
of cultures of the contemporary period serve as a particularly valuable
experience-driven education. I say that some experiences with consumerism
are more salient and educational than others, so to be clear, it
is necessary to define in greater detail some of the technical subgoals
of this education, and characterise the saliency of an experience
as its ability to facilitate the attainment of these subgoals.
overarching goal we have set for this education is the individual's
attainment of proficiency with the structuring principles of culture.
The primary mechanism of learning the structuring principles of
culture is through first-hand experience with the problematics of
culture. Two technical subgoals of education are nominated: to undermine
the authority of culture; and to teach about how it can be exploited.
The deauthoritisation of culture subgoal is served well by the caracaturisation/commoditisation
of culture epitomised by cosmopolitanism, and also by revelations
of cultural inconsistencies epitomised by multicultural experience.
The exploitation subgoal is served well by the skill of cross-cultural
translation epitomised in perspectivalism and interdiscipinarism.
While cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, and perspectivalism/interdisciplinarism
are far from being necessary or sufficient means toward achieving
our two technical subgoals, they are nonetheless, great examples
of consumeristic strategies (recall that we speak of the consumption
of sign systems, not of cars or garments) which further the education.
the next several paragraphs, I attempt to illustrate how deauthoritisation
and exploitation are furthered by examining the cognitive impact
of practising cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, or perspectivalism/interdisciplinarism
on the individual.
born out of new urbanism, developed in cultural metropolises formed
through globalisation, cultural immigration, social heterogeneity,
and diaspora. The credo of cosmopolitanism embraces cultural hybridity,
fusion, and resynthesis, but in practice, it has led to the commoditisation
of culture. A key characteristic of cosmopolitanistic cultural sign
systems then, is that they are either pigeons of other sign systems,
or they are caricatures of other sign systems. We can view the latter
as just the pigeon of the other sign system with the sign system
of consumeristic culture (read: the cultural embodiment of the values
of consumerism), and this allows us to view caracaturisation as
a special case of pigeoning.
two cultural sign systems are pigeoned, just as when two natural
languages are pigeoned (think Cajun Creole, or Chinglish), the resulting
pigeon will represent some lowest-common-denominator of the two
source systems. The trouble with pigeonisation is that the resulting
system is often oversimplified and incomplete, and thus, not completely
functional or persuasive as a cultural sign system to live by. Using
a logical calculus often applied to semiotic modelling, consider
the presentation in Figure 1. This sort of diagram can be understood
as follows. In each sign system, there is a top layer called the
surface, which contains letters representing the signifiers. There
is a bottom layer called the underlying meaning, which contains
letters representing the signifieds. The signifiers are connected
to the signifieds via signifying chains (think of them as chains
of reasoning) which runs through a middle space called cultural
interpretation. In Figure 1, the "Y" form of the signifying
chains should be understood as taking a logical AND between the
two antecedent signifiers, where both of the antecedents are needed
to produce the consequent signified.
pigeoning is illustrated in Figure 1, signs A+B=>X in system
#1, while signs B+C=>X in system #2. However, in their resulting
pigeon, system #3, the lowest-common-denominator combinational tendency
may result in B=>X, which may lead to a dysfunctional and unrobust
oo A ooo
ooooo X oooo
Sign System #2
oo B ooo C o
ooooo X oooo
Pigeon System #3
oo B ooooooo
ooooo X oooo
1. The semiological calculus of cosmopolitanism: the pigeonisation
of cultural sign systems, just as with languages, leads to oversimplification
and incompleteness, causing dysfunctional and unstable signifying
practise of cosmopolitanism will involve encounters with pigeon
cultural sign systems that are at once oversimplified and unrobust,
thus making the pigeon cultural sign system less than compelling
to accept and obey beyond mere lip service. With a pigeon system
so fraught with dysfunction, recognisable as a caricature of the
more complete and more persuasive cultural systems that the pigeon
was synthesised out of, the individual is given all the more reason
to mentally discount, deauthoritise, and feel sceptical and irreverent
of the pigeon. The individual is desensitised to the irreverence
of cultural systems and perhaps by generalisation, may begin to
discount and deauthoritise cultural sign systems in general, even
experience may also cultivate the deauthoritisation of culture,
but achieves this differently than cosmopolitanism. In cosmopolitanism,
the oversimplification, shallowness, incompleteness, and therefore,
the dysfunction of a pigeon cultural sign system may simply encourage
an individual to seek out more genuine, persuasive, and liveable
cultural sign systems. However, the idea of multiculturalism is
that an individual may come to possess two or more authentic and
persuasive cultural systems which overlap on some significations.
A good example is diaspora experience, where the two cultural systems
in question no doubt address vastly overlapping sets of both signifiers
and of signifieds. While the individual may conduct his/her own
interpretive cognition by switching (not rapidly) between two or
more culture's sign systems, there likely exists a subset of circumstances
in which the individual invokes the same signification in both cultural
systems and encounters an inherent inconsistency or conflict. Consider
Figure 2 which illustrates multi-culturalism as taking the union
of two or more authentic and overlapping sign systems.
A ooo B ooo
oooooo Y oooooo
A ooo B ooo
oooooo X oooooo
Combined System #3
A ooo B ooo
....X AND Y...
ooo Y ooo X ooo
2. The semiological calculus of multiculturalism: the additive combined
acceptance of two authentic, persuasive, and liveable sign systems
introduces some outright inconsistencies of signification which
will eventually draw the attention and exploration of the individual.
each of the input cultural sign systems are presumed to be self-consistent
(after all, authenticity is a by-product of the vetting of history),
the combined system may have conspicuous inconsistencies. While
the individual may avoid many conflicts by foregrounding one cultural
system at a time, there are likely to be moments when both cultural
systems are foregrounded and awareness of the inconsistency develops.
To reduce the ensuing cognitive dissonance, the individual now has
impetus to actively compare and seek out inconsistencies in the
combined cultural system, so that they may be reconciled. When the
individual examines these inconsistencies, she will discover that
they are a result of how cultures privilege signifiers and signifieds
differently. In "The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious,"
Lacan establishes the notion of privileging as the culture-specific
tendency to view one term in a binary opposition more favourably
than the other. For example, in the culture of capitalism, rich
is privileged over poor, and in Western culture, white is privileged
over black, and man over woman. When the diasporian's two cultures
come into conflict by disagreeing over what is privileged, the individual
may choose to side with one culture over the other, though presented
with a sequence of inconsistencies, the individual may side selectively,
constantly switching allegiances between the two. Over time, one
or both authentic and once formidable cultures will be deprecated
by the individual, thus perhaps serving to deauthoritise the notion
of culture as it exists in the mind of the individual.
cosmopolitanism and multicultural experience have the power to instil
scepticism of culture, then perspectivalism and interdisciplinarism
facilitate a new optimism and constructive attitude. Interdisciplinarism
can be viewed as perspectivalism under the context of academia,
so discussion will proceed only with perspectivalism, but the reader
is asked to bear in mind that they are analogous practices. Fundamentally,
perspectivalism is not exclusive of cosmopolitanism or multiculturalism;
it is possible to be a perspectival cosmopolitanist or perspectival
multiculturalist. Perspectivalism may be characterised as the privileging
of having multiple views on a situation versus having only a single
view, the privileging of open-mindedness over close-mindedness,
and the privileging of creativity over uncreativity. For a perspectivalist,
each new sign system adds to the perspective of the individual and
furthers the individual's repetoire of understanding. Whereas in
multiculturalism, the abutting cultures are bound to expose inconsistency
and conflict to the individual, it is possible to maintain a semblance
of harmony over the sign systems in a perspectivalist quest. As
perspectivalism acquires an increasing number of sign systems, parallels
are bound to arise, that is to say, some of these sign systems will
have analogous signification chains. And being the opportunist,
the perspectivalist individual recognises these analogies and is
able to use analogies for problem solving and understanding. For
example, as shown in Figure 3, once the individual realises the
analogy binding sign systems #1 and #2, then he/she can predict
signification chains in sign system #3 by first, recognising that
the analogs to signifiers C+D in System #1 are signifiers C'+D'
in System #2; second, recognising that C'+D' signifies Y'; and third,
finding that the analog of Y' is Y in the original System #1.
A ooo B ooo
oooooo X oooooo
ooo A' oo B' oo
oooooo X' ooooo
MultiMetaphorical System #3
ooo C ooo D ooo
...C' AND D'..
oooooo Y oooooo
3. The semiological calculus of perspectivalism/interdisciplinarism.
Fluency with cross-system translation allows solutions not apparent
in one system to benefit from reformulation in terms of a second
value of perspectivalism to the education proposition we have laid
out is that the practice empowers the individual with the know-how
for exploiting cultural systems for personal gain. To use analogy-making
between multiple cultural sign systems to improve overall understanding
is an act of exploitation (albeit, often a positive one) of culture
to the empowerment and benefit of the individual.
principles which structure culture, such as, inter alia, the privileged
binary opposition, signifying chains, cultural consistency and evolution,
cross-cultural translation, and other as yet unarticulated principles,
also serve to destructuralise culture to the extent of diminishing
culture as an authoritarian construct, instead, dissolving culture
in an amorphous substrate from which inspiration can be drawn.
am once again reminded of Jameson's "textuality" -- the
iconification and literalization of signifiers, and the attraction
or anxiety felt in that schizophrenic experience of viewing the
world of signifiers as a glittering seas of shapes, no longer knowing
what anything means anymore, too distracted or afraid to ponder
the question. For Jameson, "textuality" is a basic feature
of the postmodern condition. But I think this is too cynical a view.
The experience of "textuality" cannot be what Lyotard
would have considered a state of understanding. Rather, it is a
state of bewilderment, and only a precursor to real understanding.
The naive consumer often has the experience of bewilderment, commonly
manifested as episodes of late night channel surfing over television,
which Kaplan regards as a quinessential postmodern apparatus (1988);
however, the naive consumer has not achieved any particular state
of understanding. The more important implication of iconification
is that it is the beginning of our desensitisation to cultural sign
systems. The individual, on the self-discovering, self-educating
ascension to postmodern awareness, first is desensitised to culture,
second deauthoritises culture, and third learns to exploit culture.
achieving postmodern awareness, the individual superconsumer essentially
enters a restabilising state of "cultural hypertextuality."
In the same way that electronic hypertext changed our relationship
to text in the information age, cultural hypertextuality means that
the individual now has control and purveyance over the fabric of
cultures. The individual is a seamtress. She sews swatches of culture
together as she pleases and dresses her self in them, and when she
grows tired of her garments, she searches for new fabric, re-sews
and re-dresses. Her first revelation that she could pick her own
fabrics and tailor her own garments, led to her second revelation:
that she could now express herself in these garments just as she
intends. To think, for all those years, she put up with ill-fitted
store bought clothes.
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