hugo :: ideas :: pomo culture
"only as an æsthetic phenomenon is
existence and the world justified"

- nietzsche

 

             
 
       
               
 
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::: The Efflorescence of the Superconsumer :::

 
 


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CITATION: Hugo Liu: 2004, The Efflorescence of the Superconsumer. Available at: web.media.mit.edu/~hugo/ideas/superconsumer.html.

Introduction

Arguably 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.

Given 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.

Often 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.

The 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.

To 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.

The 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.

The superconsumer, bricoleur, intertextuality, and beyond

The 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."

In 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.

Another 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:

But 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.

That 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.

The 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.

What 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.

Jameson 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.

A 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.

What 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.

These '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.

To 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 condition.

Having 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.

Structuring principles of culture

The 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.

A 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.

Another 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.

With 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)

While 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.

If 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.

While 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.

Aside 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.

If 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.

If 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.

The fabric of cultures

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?

Earlier 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.

If 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.

In "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.

But 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?

Lacan 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.

In 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.

Like 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.

The 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.

Traditional 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.

How 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.

Social 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), and golf.

Let 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.

The naive consumer

That 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 suggests (1988).

Naturally, 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.

As 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.

To 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.

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.

Ascension to superconsumer

Lyotard's 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.

To 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.

The 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.

In 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.

Cosmopolitanism, 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.

When 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.

As 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 signifying chain.

Sign System #1

oo A ooo B o
....\.../...
.....\./....
......|.....
......|.....
ooooo X oooo

(intersect)

Sign System #2

oo B ooo C o
....\.../...
.....\./....
......|.....
......|.....
ooooo X oooo

(equals)

Pigeon System #3

oo B ooooooo
....\.......
.....\......
......|.....
......|.....
ooooo X oooo

Figure 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 chains.

 

The 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 persuasive ones.

Multicultural 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.

Sign System #1

o0o A ooo B ooo
.....\.../....
......\./.....
.......X......
.......|......
......NOT.....
.......|......
oooooo Y oooooo

(union)

Sign System #2

o0o A ooo B ooo
.....\.../....
......\./.....
.......Y......
.......|......
......NOT.....
.......|......
oooooo X oooooo

(equals)

Combined System #3

o0o A ooo B ooo
.....\.../....
......\./.....
....X AND Y...
....|.....|...
...NOT...NOT..
....|.....|...
ooo Y ooo X ooo

Figure 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.

Whereas 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.

If 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.

Sign System #1

ooo A ooo B ooo
.....\.../....
......\./.....
oooooo X oooooo

(analogyq=q')

Sign System #2

ooo A' oo B' oo
.....\.../....
......\./.....
oooooo X' ooooo

(equals)

MultiMetaphorical System #3

ooo C ooo D ooo
.....\.../....
......\./.....
...C' AND D'..
.....\.../....
.......|......
.......Y'.....
.......|......
oooooo Y oooooo

Figure 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 system.

The 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.

Further discussion

The 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.

I 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.

In 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.

References

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Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Noonday Press, May 1973. Paperback, ISBN: 0374521506.

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Barthes, Roland. The Fashion System. University of California Press, September 1990. Paperback, ISBN: 0520071778.

Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge.

Fred Davis: 1994, Fashion, Culture, and Identity, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

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Jameson, Frederic, Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London: Verso, 1991

Kaplan, E.: 1988, Who's imaginary? The television apparatus, the female body, and textual strategies in select rock videos on MTV. In E. Pribram (Ed.), Female spectators: Looking at film and television. London: Verso.

Kellner, D.: 1992, Popular culture and the construction of postmodern identities. In S. Lash & J. Friedman (Eds.), Modernity and identity. (pp. 141-177). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Lacan, J. (1977). "The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious." In: Ecrits, New York: W. W. Norton.

Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966 [1962].

Jean-François Lyotard: 1984, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, ISBN 0-8166-1173-4

T. Veblen: 1899, The Theory of the Leisure Class, New York: Dover Publications.

Kurt Wolff (ed., trans.): 1950, The Sociology of Georg Simmel, Glencoe: Free Press.

 

 

 

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