Gendering of Consumption and Production

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Chapter One: Feminizing Consumption

This project is borne of a desire to understand the longstanding conflation of femininity with consumption and the political consequences of that conflation.  Even a cursory examination of writings on production and consumption reveals the gendering of consumption and production.  Consumption is feminine and production is masculine.  The need to investigate this conflation becomes more pressing in the context of arguments that we have moved from a producer society to a consumer society or consumer culture: a society where all culture is mass culture.  Tania Modleski suggests that, “our ways of thinking and feeling about mass culture are so intricately bound with notions of the feminine that the need for feminist critique becomes obvious at every level of the debate” (Modleski 1986, p. 38).  Modleski argues that, for most culture critics, mass culture is feminized and that women have been held responsible for the debasement of taste and the sentimentalization of culture.  Critics of mass culture have even transformed acts of production by women into acts of consumption.  Modleski cites Ann Douglas’s treatment of women writers in The Feminization of American Culture and we could add David Harvey’s treatment of Cindy Sherman in The Condition of Postmodernity.  Meanwhile, critics have treated men who are readers of other’s works as producers rather than consumers; they are treated as producers of critique, analysis, and commentary.

In the most obvious sense all of the transformations produced by consumer society – the role of the state, the changing nature of work, and the stability of the family and social order – have implications for the status of women and the sexual division of labor.  Less explicitly, but perhaps more significantly, there is a prevailing sense in writings about consumer society that consumer society destroys the possibility of knowledge or truth exterior to the system of consumption and that this loss has diminished the possibility of autonomous political action.  There is a pervasive sense that the subject now exists in a world where he cannot locate, or map, himself.  This world defies visual knowledge and representation.  The obvious and explicit claim in the trope of feminine consumption is that consumption is feminine; the implicit claim is that consumer or commercial societies are in some way feminine or feminizing, a threat to a masculine subject.  The inherent but unformulated question in much analysis of consumer society is: if consumption is feminine, does that mean that a consumer society is the triumph of femininity or in some sense feminizing?

When consumption is feminized women become symbols not only of consumption but also of the consumer order.  Commercial societies[1] reorganize from above (the power and nature of the state, the social hierarchy, and the meaning of citizenship) and from below (consciousness, desire, and identity). Tropes about woman[2] connect the macro changes of commercial society with individual psychological or ‘deep’ interior changes.  The anxiety that an unrepresentable consumer order creates can then be rhetorically managed through tropes about women.  In the dress or appearance of a woman writers have found the literalization of an unrepresentable consumer order: international trade, the military-fiscal state, the social order and individual desire.

The feminization of consumption thus can both ameliorate and exacerbate anxieties about the transformation of the state, the mobility of wealth, the globalization of production and consumption, and a speeding up of the world that supposedly attends globalization.  But perhaps the most troubling assertion for social theorists is that consumer society is an era of loss of exteriority to system, the loss of a position from which to judge and to fabricate an autonomous self.  A world where the most significant institutions are unrepresentable, where the subject cannot map or locate himself,[3] produces anxiety that must be assuaged.  The task then is not only to rhetorically manage consumer society by feminizing it but also to carve out an appropriately masculine role within consumer society.  Many theorists have noted that in times of anxiety about masculine subjectivity political theorists rigorously prescribe a normative femininity and police the boundaries of sexual difference even more zealously to assuage that anxiety (see Hertz 1983 and Zerilli 1994).  I am not arguing that critics disapprove of consumer society and so they feminize it to rhetorically delegitimize it.  I am arguing that masculine identity depends on creating rhetorical distance between itself and consumption.  This need becomes more pressing in the context of assertions that we now inhabit a consumer society.

Indeed in the last thirty years consumption has displaced production as the privileged term of analysis for social theory.  Although production remains significant consumption has joined it as an equally significant term for understanding social reproduction, individual and group psychology, identity formation, and the international economic and political order.  Analysts offer two explanations for the new centrality of consumption to social inquiry.  The first explanation, exemplified by David Harvey, is that there has been an epochal shift in the industrialized West from Fordism to flexible accumulation.  Flexible accumulation, Harvey argues, has reorganized production so that production is driven by the demands of the consumer rather than the structural characteristics of production.[4]  However, production should remain the privileged term for understanding social organization, because, according to Harvey, the regime of flexible accumulation only masks the significance of production creating the false impression that consumption orders the social world.  The second explanation, also found in Harvey as well as Fredric Jameson, is that postmodern epistemologies have displaced Marxist analysis.  Marxism posits production as the privileged term for social inquiry.  For postmodern theorizing culture is the key term of analysis.  Hence, consumption becomes epistemologically privileged.

The centrality of consumption is a theme not only of social theory but also of contemporary political rhetoric.  There is almost no issue in American economic and political life which cannot be, or has not been, reframed as an issue of consumption.  Consider, first, the recession, or “economic slowdown,” of 2001 and, second, the War on Terror.  Media pundits never tired of telling us two things about the “economic slowdown” of 2001.  The first was that it was only consumption that was propping up the United States’ economy and preventing a “full-blown recession.”  The Bush tax refund was recast as a necessary measure to facilitate the efforts of the heroic consumer to single-handedly stave off a recession.  Businesses had already stopped spending because they had over-estimated demand for goods.  It became the responsibility of the consumer to save business from their overproduction.  Second, it was essential that the consumer continue this orgy of debt-inducing spending.  A new version of good citizenship was being articulated.  Good citizenship no longer required military service, political participation, or saving and conserving for the future.  Good citizens now rushed to the mall, tax rebate and credit cards in hand, to thwart the impending recession.  After September 11, 2001 consumption took on even more heroic proportions.  A trip to the mall was now a part of the War on Terror.  Stop spending, we were warned, and the economy will collapse; the “the terrorists will have won.”

As consumption has claimed a new significance for social reproduction and the analysis of social reproduction there has been an attendant shortage of defenses of consumption and of a society that is organized around consumption.  Most social theorists who chronicle the contemporary significance of consumption for subject formation and social organization take the existence of consumer society as evidence of the moral, political, intellectual, or spiritual impoverishment of the industrialized West (and the United States particularly).  Consumption, they imply, is how we make and remake ourselves and society; but it is ultimately an indefensible mode of social reproduction.

Lizabeth Cohen argues that it was President Jimmy Carter who inaugurated the contemporary American soul-searching over the centrality of consumption to American life.  During the era of stagflation Carter blamed consumerism not only for the recession but also for the malaise of modern American life (Cohen 2003, p. 389).  Material goods, he argued, created inner spiritual emptiness.  Prior to Carter’s intimation that material goods were a problem the material abundance of America had been a sign, not only of political and economic superiority, but also of moral superiority.  During World War II and the Cold War the freedom to purchase whatever one wanted was a sign of political freedom not available in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union (Cohen 2003, p. 71).  The intangibles of democracy, formal equality, and political freedom were made real with washers and dryers.

Popular culture itself is replete with anxiety, and even disgust, over the consumer culture of which these popular culture items are part and parcel.  Consider, for example, the films High Fidelity, About a Boy, and American PsychoHigh Fidelity’s male character, Rob, is obsessed with popular culture, particularly music.  As the movie progresses his obsession becomes a sign of emotional immaturity and indifference to other people.  He consumes his own life as a popular culture object, stopping every so often to criticize the production value (the dialogue isn’t great, the music selection is all wrong for the moment, and the male protagonist is a wimp).  The main adult character in About A Boy, because he has never had to work and only consumes, has failed to construct an autonomous adult personhood.  He has nothing more significant to do than go CD shopping and invent identities to win new girlfriends.  American Psycho is, perhaps, even more moralizing about the consumer spectacles of the 1980’s.  The film portrays soulless Yuppies eating nouveau cuisine while people starve outside.  They maintain fastidious exteriors to conceal that they are repulsive human beings.  Clothes, apartments, business card stationary and even fonts become occasions for anxious invidious distinction.  The serial killer anti-hero’s obsession with consumer goods is a sign, once again, of an emotional emptiness and lack of humanity.  He seems to announce that a society organized around getting and having cannot detect a well-dressed and well-groomed serial killer in its midst as he sings the vacuous 1980’s anthem “Hip to be Square” while dismembering his victims.  Perhaps the 1980’s should be portrayed this way.  However, Lauren Berlant persuasively argues that the problem with the 1980’s was that it was the era when private choices became the scapegoat for public policy (see Berlant 1997).  She argues that rather than the rise of nouveau cuisine being responsible for homelessness a better explanation is that the Reagan tax cuts, budget cuts, and deinstitutionalization of mental patients exacerbated many social problems in the 1980’s.

The assertion that the pursuit of material goods was leading to social and spiritual impoverishment merged quite easily into the anti-feminist backlash of the 1980’s.  Women, social conservatives argued, were going to work not only because of economic necessity (if they conceded there was such a thing at all), but also for personal fulfillment or in pursuit of economic equality and, hence, political power.  Women were going to work so that they could purchase “luxury” goods.  The trope of the narcissistic bad mother who was trading her child’s psychological, intellectual and spiritual development for a pair of Prada heels was born.  Or perhaps worse, these women were forgoing children altogether because they would interfere with lives organized around getting and displaying commodities.

One of the more popular shows in recent memory, Sex and the City, celebrated the consumer exploits of fashionable but shallow women in New York City.  Carrie and her friends inhabit the same physical space and enjoy the same economic and educational advantages as the inhabitants of American Psycho.  They spend, if possible, even more time thinking about clothes, shoes, and where to eat or have drinks.  In one of the most self-conscious moments of the show we see that Carrie types her columns with a mirror placed above her computer so that she can look at herself while she writes about her life.  But rather than a grisly morality tale, Sex and the City is a comedy; the female characters should inspire envy and emulation not repulsion.  Perhaps this is due to the loss of outrage over the social transformations of the 1980’s.  However, I would argue that it is because Sex and the City is about women’s failure to become adults.  It is perhaps no accident that the soulless, friendless entities that inhabit the emotionally impoverished world of consumption in movies such as American Psycho, About a Boy and High Fidelity are all male.  It might be difficult to make a horrific or moralizing tale about a woman trapped in adolescence by consumption.  The failure of men to achieve autonomous moral personality is not only a personal calamity but a social, political, and economic one; but for women to be slaves to fashion, and to live in the opinions of others, is no cause for alarm.

The recent invasion of Afghanistan and the War on Terror has seen the return of Cold War strategies that construe the availability of consumer goods to be a sign of the moral superiority of the West.  The availability of consumer goods in America, and the relative deprivation of “our enemies,” illustrated the material and ideological superiority of the West.  Part of that superiority is gender equality.  Even traditional foes of feminism have pointed to the advances of women in America as evidence of the superiority of American life including, and perhaps especially, allowing women the individual satisfaction brought by consumer goods.  The availability of consumer goods and the status of women become, once again, material indicators of the difference between “us” and “them.”  “We” are enlightened and egalitarian and we value freedom; you can see the superiority of “our” way of life not only in the availably of consumer goods, but also, and particularly, in how “we” treat “our” women.  What had been a sign of decay and anxiety, the freedom of women and material abundance, have been transformed into signs of superiority.  The longstanding association of consumption with femininity is one reason to suspect that the current celebration of consumption will be short lived.

Scholars who have considered consumption, from Daniel Bell and Christopher Lasch to Jean Baudrillard and Alan Hunt, have concluded that, first, consumption shares some kind of intimate relationship with the feminine and that, second, consumption is a threat to the culture of work and production.  For Hunt the association between femininity and consumption is the result of centuries of rhetorical and legal work while for Bell, Lasch, and Baudrillard there is something intrinsically feminine or feminizing about consumption.  Feminized and feminizing consumer society, this latter group suggests, undermines the discipline, renunciation of pleasure, and delay of gratification that is necessary for production and accumulation.  The “feminine” promise for Baudrillard, a threat for Bell and Lasch, is of a consumer society that values pleasure, self-gratification, self-expression, self-knowledge; one that values, that is, an end to the discipline and repression of the culture of work.

There is, however, a very different position on consumption and consumer culture that has been influenced by the writing of members of the Frankfurt School and Henri Lefebvre.  Consumer society in this tradition signals not the end of domination and repression and new freedom for the individual but rather a deeper control, a control that obviates repression.  According to this argument, the individual who is dominated by images, specifically images of consumption, is dominated through the manipulation of desire, fantasy, and pleasure.  In this narrative, consumer society is not a threat to the disciplinary culture of work; consumer society is, instead, the enhancement and perfection of discipline.  Although in this version consumption comes to serve social control rather than threaten it, consumption never loses its association with femininity.

Uniting each of the analyses of consumer culture is the focus on narcissism.  Narcissism in its mythic, Freudian and Lacanian incarnations has gendered implications at its core.  To appropriate either Freudian narcissism, as do Lasch and the Frankfurt School, or Lacanian narcissism, as does Jameson, is to appropriate a gendered language about ego and subject formation in order to analyze consumer culture.  Moreover, to focus on narcissism as the defining attribute of consumer culture leaves voyeurism and masculine exhibitionism unexplored.  The exclusive focus on feminine and feminizing narcissism leaves the dynamics of the cultivation of voyeurism and the masculine subject unexamined.

Such an omission is problematic, but so is the assumption that narcissism is feminine or feminizing.  Steve Pile, for example, suggests that narcissism and voyeurism are different guises of the masculine gaze:

The gaze is eroticized by a desire which is at once expressed and repressed.  The masculine gaze has two, related pleasures: narcissistic and voyeuristic.  In narcissism, the viewer sees the image in relationship to himself: while, in voyeurism, the observer holds the object in view but at a distance.  In both situations, the look is active and the object is passive.  Within the dominant sexual politics of looking, the active look is encoded as masculine and the passive object is feminized.  Women appear, men look. (Pile 1996, p. 94)

Kaja Silverman argues that masculine voyeurism may also conceal repressed exhibitionism, exhibitionism transformed into culturally dominant voyeurism.  She suggests that the male fascination with female dress is a pretext for “rummaging through her clothes” (Silverman 1986, p. 142).   The “great masculine renunciation”[5] tempered narcissism and exhibitionism in men and left them with three strategies: sublimation, scopophilia [voyeurism] or identification with women as spectacle (Silverman 1986, p. 141).  Masculine renunciation then is not the refusal of exhibitionism but its disavowal.  Voyeurism and exhibitionism are part and parcel of the constitution of the modern masculine ego; but in most critiques of consumer culture they are avoided in favor of narcissism.  Indeed, the feminine desire to be watched appears as the defining characteristic of consumer culture in these accounts.

However, both the Freudian and Lacanian accounts find an imaginary relationship to images at the core of the ego and the subject.  A closer examination of Freudian and Lacanian narcissism reveals that the masculine subject isn’t characterized simply by a rejection of exhibitionism and the celebration of voyeurism; it is also characterized by the need to control its relationship to images.  The voyeurism of the masculine subject isn’t merely the need to look, but the need to control the object through sight.  The masculine subject must then deny its dependence on those images for the illusion of coherence.[6]

Chapter Summaries

Chapter Two discusses three contemporary approaches to understanding commercial society.  I first discuss defenders of commercial society, such as Anne Norton and Gilles Lipovetksy, who argue that commercial society is a necessary condition for the rise of liberalism and democracy.  Each engages in a limited defense of narcissism because it reduces social conflict.  However, both concede that consumption increases subjective conflict.  I will argue that neither of these defenses of consumer society is persuasive because each fails to challenge the association between feminine narcissism and consumption within consumer society.  And, unsurprisingly, both fail to thematize masculine consumption.

I turn next to communitarian critics of commercial society.  I turn to scholars (such as Michael Sandel), public intellectuals (such as Christopher Lasch), and popular writers who have distilled their ideas for, ironically, popular consumption.  The concept of narcissism is especially important to the communitarian critique of commercial society.  For communitarian critics the reduction of social conflict in consumer culture has been purchased at too dear of a price.  For Christopher Lasch consumer culture is the culture of narcissism.  Narcissism is about self-hatred and so requires that all social relations be about winning approval.  More than a reduction in social conflict, this is the end of society altogether since all interactions are merely about the self.  Lasch, most explicitly of all communitarian critics, blames the end of patriarchal authority for this state of affairs and launches a sustained attack on feminizing narcissism.

Finally, Chapter Two explores the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and contemporary heirs to the critical theory tradition – David Harvey, Fredric Jameson, and Jean Baudrillard.  The Frankfurt School’s attempt to bridge Marx and Freud is driven by the desire to supplement Marxist readings of production with a Freudian interpretation of culture.  Culture and consumption have been a preoccupation of critical theory from the beginning.  The critical theory of the Frankfurt School argues that the personality that can resist authoritarianism is being replaced by a conformist personality because of transformations in cultural reproduction.  Harvey, Jameson and Baudrillard take this analysis one-step further, arguing that late capitalism (or postmodernity) has colonized even the last precapitalist enclaves of resistance to a personality totally determined by capitalist social reproduction.  I will argue that the Frankfurt School strategy of protecting the ego from colonization, shared by Harvey, is driven by anxiety of becoming feminine.  While Baudrillard explicitly embraces his newfound postmodern femininity, he does so by imagining that he can speak the feminine.  Accordingly, all share the strategy of disavowing the voyeuristic constitution of the masculine subject.

An earlier era in which social critics discerned an epochal shift driven by commerce was England from 1700 to 1780.  This era is the focus of chapters three and four.  During this period there was a sense that a world in which all guarantors of order were visible and tangible was being replaced by a world where order was intangible, unknowable, and unrepresentable.  According to writers as varied as Jonathan Swift, Henry St. John Bolingbroke, Bernard Mandeville, Joseph Addison, and Richard Steele, during this era an international economic system, the bureaucratic state, credit, stock, paper money, the market and empire were replacing the marketplace, land as wealth and the state as king.

This is the era of emerging commercial society, which they understood as trade and consumption rather than production.  It is also the era of the emergence of the mass consumption of commodities, spectacles, and opinion.  Commerce and consumption transformed political, economic, social and cultural institutions, as well as everyday life – both from “above” and “below.”  According to contemporary observers social space was transformed from an arena in which social relations were unselfconsciously reiterated to one in which the self was presented consciously.  The self that was fabricated in these presentations to others was contingent, unstable, and a cause for anxiety.  Indeed, a recurring theme of these writers is the difficulty, if not impossibility, of locating oneself in the new world order.

I turn to this era not to trace the origins of the bourgeois mind but rather to examine inherited tropes about consumption.  During this era commercial society is consistently represented as feminine.  Defoe, for example, represents credit, the very force that makes commercial society possible (more so than money), as a woman.  In addition, fashion and consumption are represented as a woman.

I will argue that this representation of commercial society as a woman is part of two opposed strategies. The first, encountered in Chapter Three, is a hysterical reaction that represents commercial society as imperiling sexual difference.  Bolingbroke will attempt to rescue virtù by rhetorically transforming what he considers a political crisis, Whig rule, into the crisis of sexual difference in peril.  However, the argument that sexual difference is in perial is precisely what is supposed to drive men away from commercial society and into the public sphere.  For Addison and Steele sexual difference in peril requires turning women into ‘woman.’  Addison and Steele rigorously prescribe feminine self-display so that women can serve as proxies for the exhibitionism of the masculine voyeur.  Addison and Steele rhetorically turn women into objects of the gaze of the voyeur to assuage anxiety about women’s centrality to consumer society.   Perhaps unexpectedly I will argue that Jonathan Swift most thoroughly challenges the strategies of the  narcissistic voyeur to prop himself up in his delusions.  He challenges the voyeuristic “projecting” subject that Addison and Steele construct by arguing that this subject is plagued by narcissism.  Swift’s writing exacerbates the anxiety of the male hysterics rather than assuages it; his writing forces the rational, clean subject to confront his waste and irrationality.

Chapter Four discusses writers who employ the second strategy: the attempt to make a home for man in commercial society.  Adam Smith, David Hume and John Millar rhetorically present commercial society as a woman in order to make it imminently knowable and controllable, to soothe the imaginations of uneasy readers.  In their accounts woman becomes a synecdoche for the global system of commerce and man’s uneasy relationships to the system.  Each author prescribes a carefully contrived tutelary relationship between men and women, including the absence of women from public life, in order to control the narcissism at the center of commercial society.  These defenders of commercial societies turn to the trope of the civilizing woman; in commercial society men come under the tutelage of women for the better.  This group, accordingly, no longer juxtaposes commercial society to virtù or virtue because as society and culture replace the political as key terms of analysis virtù and Christian virtue become less relevant.

Chapters Three and Four are not organized in terms of pro-commerce and anti-commerce (or Whig v. Tory or Country Whig v. Court Whig).  Instead, what unites the writers discussed in chapter three is their attempt to understand the emergence of commercial society in terms of the way it challenges both traditional society, for better or worse, and classical notions of citizenship.  I read them as marshalling anxieties about sexual difference to achieve political and economic ends.  I understand this period, following Pocock, as Machiavellian.  I read these authors as struggling with the dilemma of wealth, politics, and sexual difference that Machiavelli first articulates as the political problem of the modern era.  They see commercial society as inaugurating a mode of political engagement that is opposed to virtù and / or virtue.  While each author manifests concern over feminizing narcissism, I will argue that what rhetorically seduces the reader is, first, the unacknowledged anxiety over male exhibitionism and, second, the possibility of criminal narcissism (i.e. the possibility of women refusing feminine narcissism). That is to say that what seduces the reader is not the threat of feminine narcissism but the collapse of sexual difference in male exhibitionism and narcissism and women refusing narcissism.

In Chapter Four I turn to Adam Smith, David Hume, and John Millar in order to discuss the problems and promise of consumer society through the dilemmas articulated by Machiavelli and the even more damning ones of Rousseau.  Although Smith, Hume and Millar embrace commercial society and Rousseau rejects it, I read them as relying on a Rousseauian language rather than a Machiavellian language.  Indeed, Smith, Hume, and Millar largely abandon both virtù and virtue; the privileged terms of analysis are culture and society, not the political.  The normative terms of politics are, accordingly, thrust into civil society, culture, and even the family.

I will argue that neither Smith nor Hume, contra some interpretations, is engaged in an uncritical defense of commercial societies.  Instead, they evaluate commerce in terms of how well it serves individual desires and needs, although they acknowledge that commercial societies transform those needs and desires.  The question is not so much whether they embrace or reject commerce, as it is with the earlier writers.  For Smith, Hume and Millar commercial society is a fact.  The task for these writers is to represent these transformations, make them tangible, invest them with meaning, and project them back into the terms and practices of everyday life in order to facilitate the illusion of knowledge and control.  Adam Smith is the focus of this chapter because he conceives of consumer society as a series of carefully managed opportunities for self-display and voyeurism – opportunities that can be exploited in order to effectively manage the narcissism of the modern subject.  He turns all of society into a spectacle in order to constitute a new spectator: one that can resist the inhuman narcissism of Swift, the criminal narcissism of women, and the masculine exhibitionism that concerns Bolingbroke, Addison, Steele and Mandeville (as well as contemporaries such as Harvey, Jameson and Lasch).

Emerging consumer society was seen, by both enemies and advocates, as destructive to the self as it was then understood.  Both groups rhetorically feminized this new order to seduce the reader to the writer’s position.  The association of consumption and consumer society is now so thorough it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle the two objects.  Advocates of the new world order have had a second task: explaining why feminine commercial society does not destroy the masculine subject.  Insinuating voyeurism at the core of the masculine subject has rhetorically reconciled the masculine subject to feminine consumer society.  The voyeur never consumes the object; he consumes the image or the sign.  Consumption of the object, a giving of self over to the object, has been constructed as feminine[7] while the consumption of signs and meanings has been rhetorically marked as masculine.[8]  Advocates and opponents of consumer society thus insinuated sex difference at the heart of consumption: “feminine” consumption is driven by the lack of the narcissistic self while the “masculine” consumption of the voyeur enlarges the self and expands subjectivity.  Even contemporary critics of consumer society leave this construction of consumption and sexual difference largely unchallenged.[9]  As I argue in both chapters four and five Swift’s writing alone attacks the strategies of the voyeur; there is no distinction between the consumption of objects and signs because it is all waste eventually.

Interpretation

This project is inspired thematically by the Nietzschean and Foucaultian attempt to chronicle the creation of the modern secular subject through sexuality, punishment, and psychoanalysis.  Creation of this interiority is, in fact, a superficial process; a result of seeing and being seen.  This interiority facilitates discipline, stability, and social control (Foucault) by producing a responsible individual who experiences shame, guilt, and anxiety (Nietzsche).  The responsible individual is calculating, and can be seen as a choosing moral agent that can be held accountable.  Although Foucault and Nietzsche were skeptical, if not hostile, to psychological or psychoanalytic accounts of the subject, Judith Butler provides a Nietzschean and Foucaultian reading of psychoanalytic theory.  Butler transforms the ‘depth psychology’ of psychoanalysis into an account of the creation of interiority from exteriority.  Butler rereads core psychoanalytic concepts, such as identification, as taking place on the surface of body and coming to be interiorized.  It is through Butler’s reading of psychoanalysis that psychoanalytic and Nietzschean or Foucaultian approaches become compatible.

This secular interiority is an ambivalent achievement from a political perspective.  The autonomous agent, while fictitious, has made the modern liberal capitalist order possible.  This autonomous agent is a fiction because it requires constant maintenance from others to maintain the fiction of autonomy.  Nevertheless, the responsible individual is more egalitarian than what precedes it in the sense that all are moral agents, responsible for themselves to varying degrees.

Following Kathy Ferguson’s distinction between interpretive and genealogical method, my project is interpretive in method but genealogical in theme.  Ferguson argues that the interpretive project employs a hermeneutics of suspicion, analyzing the text to get past the superficial reality to an underlying reality.  Ferguson contrasts that to the genealogical method, where one is always implicated in what one denounces and there is no innocent position for the author.  In this way genealogy calls attention to what has been omitted or silenced and recognizes its own mythmaking status.

I assume that every text functions in at least two ways.  First, it is a narrative, a story located in time, an intervention in a particular world, which is directed to a specific audience.  This narrative is organized to persuade the reader to view the world in a particular way and to act in the world.  Any text uses both argument and rhetoric to seduce the reader to the writer’s position.  Each narrative will construct a normative or desirable social space and posit ideal social relations within that space.  Second, even though every text is an intervention in the world, authorial intention does not secure meaning even if the author’s intentions were perfectly transparent.  Texts function in this second way because language generates rather than describes the world.  As readers we cannot assume that the authorial function serves to guarantee coherence to texts or to sets of political concepts they might generate.  Rather we must be attentive to how the meaning generated in texts may introduce instability and incoherence in the very political concepts they are attempting to define.  As Linda Zerilli notes, “every argument is constructed through and dependent on the very tropes it may eschew as an obstacle to truth” (Zerilli 1994, p. 6).   Authors use rhetoric, metaphor and trope to seduce their readers; but the author’s use of rhetoric exceeds the ability to control signification.  If every text is an intervention into the world the author must believe that an intervention is required.  The anxiety that he or she seeks to master through writing is revealed in the tropes, rhetoric and metaphors that he or she deploys in order to seduce the reader.

Linda Zerilli argues that the theorists she reads refuse to accept the arbitrary relationship between language and politics and turn this instability into a political threat with a specific cause and solution.  The instability of words is then treated as a symptom of political crisis rather than intrinsic to the nature of words and things.  This crisis, and the accompanying threat of instability, is often figured as emanating from disorderly woman who must be contained through proper femininity (Zerilli 1994, p. 3).  Like Zerilli I also return to the political theory canon to investigate the ways that representations of the political are parasitic on representations of both femininity and sexual difference.  Many feminist readers of the canon have noted how often in political theory woman is cast as the disruptive outsider to the political order.  Paradoxically, woman comes to represent both the threat to political order and that which can guarantee political order – if she can be found a proper home in femininity.

One trope that recurs frequently in the Western canon is that of sexual difference in peril.  A political crisis is the sense that the world is in chaos and the disorder needs to be contained and reordered.  According to Zerilli, political crisis, the crises of meaning and the crises of sexual difference form a metonymic chain – one suggests the other: “each [Rousseau, Burke and Mill] produces women as transgressive to service his larger argument about the crisis of political meaning” (Zerilli 1994, p. 13).   Proper femininity and, by implication, proper masculinity are produced to reorder the world through the text.  To alleviate radical insecurity political theorists have rhetorically domesticated, normalized chaos and disorder and argued that women can be put in their place.  Hume and Smith, for example, attempt to assure their reader that the crisis can be managed.  Their rhetorical attempt to manage the crisis by finding a proper home for femininity is Rousseauian in solution even though the home they find for women is very different than the one Rousseau finds.  There is, however, a second strategy, which is to drive men to action with images of women out-of-order to create the sense that the political crisis affects the most intimate part of the reader’s life.  The author attempts to drive the reader from the private realm into public action through the trope of masculinity in peril, or male hysteria.  Male hysteria is the representation of a political threat as if it were a sexual threat (see Hertz 1983).  I read male hysteria more broadly, as the inability to tell the difference between political and sexual threats.[10]  The authors I consider in Chapter Three use this approach to make the abstract problems they perceive with emerging commercial society of immediate concern to their reader.

The feminization of consumption or commercial society shifts the macro changes brought by commercial society into the terms of everyday life.  This becomes evident in Augustan England (the focus of Chapters Three and Four) where intercourse and commerce are used to describe commercial and personal, even sexual, exchanges.  The thorough and longstanding feminization of consumption has a variety of consequences for the analysis of consumption and consumer society.  The feminization of consumption creates rhetorical distance between the masculine subject and the problematic desires that drive the new world order.  Put simply, the feminization of consumption depicts the dangerous desires unleashed by commercial society as emanating from outside, rather than within, the masculine subject.  He is embattled but not corrupted: he is a voyeur but not a narcissist or an exhibitionist.  However, the feminization of consumption has meant that analyses of consumption are often plagued by unacknowledged anxiety about sexual difference and the paralepsis of sexual difference in consumer society.

Commercial societies, and consumption particularly, then emerge not merely as a political, economic or social problem but as a threat to masculine sexual identity.  This confusion between sexual threats and political threats I will call, following Neil Hertz, male hysteria.  The feminization of consumption, which was to safeguard the masculine subject, leaves it in a paradoxical position in emerging consumer society.  The masculine subject comes to depend on what has been presented as a threat to his identity: feminine narcissism.  Narcissism, in analyses of consumer society, emerges as more than a diagnostic tool but as a normative argument about sexual difference.  What is unthinkable is that the masculine subject is already afflicted with narcissism or that women would refuse feminine narcissism.


[1] Don Slater defines consumer culture as a “social arrangement in which the relation between lived cultural and social resources, between meaningful ways of life and symbolic and material resources on which they depend is mediated through markets” (Consumer Culture and Modernity p. 8). According to others consumer culture begins the moment fashion comes to dominate choices and not considerations of utility or tradition.  Adam Smith defines commercial society as society where “[E]very man lives by exchanging, or becomes in some measure a merchant, and the society itself grows to be what is properly a commercial society” (Wealth of Nations p. 37). Baudrillard argues that “[C]onsumption is a substitution of a spontaneous relation with oneself for a relation mediated by signs.” I use all three terms: consumption, commercial society and consumer society, throughout.

[2] Following much of feminist theory I will use “woman” to designate the fantastical figure that functions rhetorically in much of political theory.  “Woman” should not be confused with women.

[3] Since I will argue that the critical position that is being constructed and defended is a specifically masculine position I will use the masculine pronoun for most of what follows.

[4] David Harvey argues the postmodernism does away with several constraints on capital, specifically the need for production to stay close to markets and areas where there has been significant capital investment (see The Urban Experience).

[5] This is J. C. Flugel’s term for the process whereby European men abandoned all ornamentation on their clothing.

[6] Feminist film criticism has argued that the voyeur, even when a woman looks, is masculine.  When a woman turns herself, or other women, into objects of the gaze she looks as a masculine voyeur.  There is no feminine voyeur.  If this is the case turning oneself into an object is a paradoxical moment of power and powerlessness.  By appropriating the voyeuristic gaze of the masculine subject the woman appropriates the power of this position, but the price is that she must turn herself into an object of her own gaze.

[7] This is not to say that it is only the consumption of women.  As Norton notes this is the understanding of the consumption of all marginal groups (the poor, immigrants, minorities, gays and lesbians) from the perspective of the dominant group.

[8] Pierre Bourdieu has explored the class implications of this division but not the implications for sexual difference.  Feminine consumption, like working class consumption, consumes the object.  Masculine consumption, like the consumption of the intellectual, consumes the sign rather than merely the object (see Bourdieu 1984).

[9] One exception is Norton who attempts to appropriate masculine consumption for marginalized groups.  Another is Lefebvre who is attentive to how the “feminization” of consumption is merely a strategy to subject men and women to the images of objects although it subjects each differently.

[10] A recent example that, I believe, demonstrates that male hysteria can also manifest itself as the representation of a sexual threat as if it were a political threat is gay marriage.

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