An Alternative to the Consumption Model

After reading this really incredible interview with David Graeber in Boston Review, I wanted to read some of his work but wasn’t quite ready to spring $20 for the nook book of Debt: The First 5,000 Years (I wouldn’t realistically have time to read it until this summer anyway). So naturally I went to the academic databases, where I found an article called “Consumption” in Current Anthropology (the link points to an article that’s behind the JSTOR wall), and I’ve been thinking about the central question of that article since then. Basically, in the article Graeber asks why we tend to think of nearly every form of contemporary human behavior as a form consumption. The article’s an anthropology article very much engaged with that discipline’s assumptions and practices, but I don’t think this commonplace treatment of so much human behavior as consumption is very specific to anthropology. We think of ourselves as consumers, and we think of what we do as consumption.

Graeber begins his investigation into the metaphor of consumption by exploring the history of the word: “The English ‘to consume’ derives from the Latin verb consumere, meaning ‘to seize or take over completely’ and, hence, by extension, to ‘eat up, devour, waste, destroy, or spend’” (491). From there, “Consumption in the contemporary sense really appears in the political economy literature only in the late eighteenth century, when authors such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo began to use it as the opposite of ‘production’” (492). This notion of consumption is partially a result of changes in the economy that separated the place of production of products from the place where products are used. The place of production becomes the workplace, so the idea of consumption is used to describe what people do when they’re not at work producing. The worldview of consumption at its heart is “an image of human existence that first appears in the North Atlantic world around the time of the industrial revolution, one that sees what humans do outside the workplace largely as a matter of destroying things or using them up” (492). The problem with this is that consumption is not really a very good metaphor for a lot of things people do. Graeber writes, “Imagine, for example, four teenagers who decide to form a band. They scare up some instruments, teach themselves to play, write songs, come up with an act, and practice long hours in the garage. Now it seems reasonable to see such behavior as production of some sort or another, but if one takes the common de facto definition to its logical conclusion, it would be much more likely to be placed in the sphere of consumption simply because they did not themselves manufacture the guitars” (491). Graeber allows that, in order to account for this kind of behavior, we often model it as “creative consumption,” but nothing in this example is really being consumed in the sense of being used up or destroyed (or eaten), unless we really believe the only important aspect of what’s going on is the purchase and use of the guitars and equipment. Another, better example: “But when a 16-year-old girl writes a short story about forbidden love between Kirk and Spock, this is hardly consumption anymore; we are talking about people engaging in a complex community organized around forms of (relatively unalienated) production” (500). What I think is fundamentally wrong with thinking this kind of behavior as ‘consumption’ is that it makes the person doing it ultimately passive, treating any idea of their agency as illusory: they are not really producing, they are consuming, albeit creatively. It is consumption because the sphere of production is separate from where consumers are: production is an activity reserved for the production of unique objects for consumption, and even creative consumption (in this case fan fiction) is really only a more complex way of consuming the products made over there in the sphere of production.

I do think this bias is very present in the way we as literary critics (or students of literature, or whatever) think of texts, and the way we think we should engage with them. The text is a product; the text is what is produced. Even when we go out of our way to try to un-reify the text, we tend to look for ways to understand how it was produced, maybe treating the process of production as more important than the final product. But fundamentally, texts are produced. And then they are consumed. When we study a text and interpret it, we are describing how we believe it should be consumed (or, if we’re being all reader-response-y, we might try to describe how we think people consume it). This might even be somewhat behind the division between creative writing and literature studies in English departments: creative writing classes are where we learn how to produce texts; literature studies is where we learn how to consume them. We might investigate the hidden ideologies the text grows out of (or propounds), but we do this in order to more fully understand the implications of the consumption of these texts.

Graeber concludes this brief essay with the following suggestion, my favorite thing about the article: “it might be more enlightening to start looking at what we have been calling the ‘consumption’ sphere rather as the sphere of the production of human beings, not just as labor power but as persons, internalized nexes of meaningful social relations, because after all, this is what social life is actually about, the production of people (of which the production of things is simply a subordinate moment), and it is only the very unusual organization of capitalism that makes it even possible for us to imagine otherwise” (502). This puts me in mind of what I found really interesting about “Rereading the English Common Reader” by Jonathan Rose (this book is also on my want list now). Rose reads through a bunch of turn-of-the-century memoirs (and oral histories) of English working class readers to see what they say about what they found useful about literature, what kinds of texts they read, what specific books, what ideas they gleaned from them, etc, and he uses this information to build an argument that a lot of the kind of capital-L literature we often dismiss as elitist was exactly the type of stuff these working class readers reported finding most useful. And what they found most useful about these books was that the books helped them gain access to ideas they wouldn’t have otherwise have had access too, and that they perceived as larger than the world they lived in. It’s really not an earthshaking thesis, but it does indicate that in a really concrete sense, readers actually do use books to produce themselves—it’s not just an illusion, something we tell ourselves we do in order to flatter our love of reading. I want to say that in a really important sense, reading is not consumption; it’s an activity humans do in order gain what they feel are better tools for the production of people, to help engage more effectively in meaningful social relations, etc. And if our model of literature is shifted in this way, we have to think of the text as something other than a product (or at least, as not wholly a product). The text might more properly be thought as an object a reader uses to gain access to a series of tools, for example. One job of the critic might be, then, to make different uses of a text or kinds of texts more readily available (or, alternatively, possibly, to make some uses less accessible). The point is to not think the text as a product consumed by the reader, but instead to understand both text and reader as actively engaged in an activity of production.

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One Response to An Alternative to the Consumption Model

  1. lmaruca says:

    Awhile ago I was involved in a project that was meant to be sort of a mash-up between composition and book history. Called “Cultures of Writing” (see, it was meant precisely to bridge the gap in English Departments between Composition/Creative Writing, which teaches production, and Literary/Cultural Studies, which teaches the history of consumption. I think Case Western;s Writing Center was designed to bring those two together, but in most places, the gulf has only widened, with many Comp Programs now being housed outside of traditional English Depts. Nowadays, my historical work on 18c literacy instruction is meant (in part) to investigate the origins of this rupture–it was not always so.

    One of the most useful theories of cultural consumption comes from pop culture studies. I can’t provide links anymore (though the name Fiske seems to float to the top), but I remember reading books arguing that so-called consumers are NOT silently and passively being “duped” by media elites, and are not “victims” of a repressive media ideology, but are actively responding and even on some levels recreating their experiences with media, shopping, and other forms of consumer culture. Fan fiction is a prime example of this.

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