Consumerism, as a possible byproduct of capitalist society has become one of the most representative traits of American society. A tendency to spiral away from reality into a fake sense of safety and power provided by money and the purchasing of consumer goods has emerged. On the verge of the 21st century, two film directors managed to get a hold of the major issues of the subject at hand, trying to deconstruct the ideals of consumerism, creating two products of mass consumption themselves. This paper will attempt to make a presentation of the American consumerist society, by analyzing David Fincher's Fight Club and Sam Mendes's American Beauty.
Just one look around is enough for one to realize the inescapability of our current predicament of being consumers in a consumer society, a consumer culture. The entangled web consumerism has managed to create in our lives and society is so prominent, that it really has become second nature to us. It is so subtle yet it can produce such drastic changes, which is why I considered it to be a good subject to address in my final thesis. After having watched Fight Club and American Beauty, it suddenly became obvious that some things are truly headed in a catastrophic direction, and the matter at hand should not be treated lightly. The two films make a clear statement of this, presenting a myriad of situations representative to the way consumerism can and does affect our everyday lives in a negative way, also providing ways we can fight against it, deconstructing the consumerist ideal and encouraging the viewer to be more aware and informed, to look beneath the surface and resist giving in to every whim, urge and want they may have.
The general subject of consumerism, and consumer society and culture has been treated by many and it has a fairly substantial literature one can visit, thus I cannot say it is a novelty in social and cultural sciences. Nevertheless, to view this subject through the prism of these two cinematographic works and to revisit the films with a more scientifically critical eye will help in my making a more accurate presentation of American and Western society in general. With this paper I aim to present the ideology of consumerism and the prominent criticism thereof, also David Fincher's Fight Club and Sam Mendes's American Beauty and the way in which this ideology is represented in them followed by an attempt to deconstruct this consumerist ideal, also present in the movie. In doing so, I will use ideological, content and semiotic analysis.
In Chapter 1 - Consumer Society and Social Criticism I will deal with introducing certain notions and authors, crucial to the understanding of the subject at hand. Chapter 2 - A Brief History of Consumer Culture will present the evolution of circumstances which led to where we are today. Then I will shift focus to the films, analyzing them separately, first taking a closer look at David Fincher's masterpiece in Chapter 3 - Fight Club. The next chapter, Chapter 4 - American Beauty will be about Sam Mendes's film. Chapter 5 - Deconstructing the Consumerist Ideal will make an effort to do exactly what its title suggests, providing a meeting ground for directorial, theoretical and personal views. Naturally, the Conclusion shall contain the most important deductions and assessments which can be drawn from the totality of ideas present and presented in this paper.
Consumer Society and Social Criticism
Before entering a more lengthily description of theories, authors and views on consumer culture, I would like to clarify certain terms in the context in which I will further use them. Most importantly consumerism can mean one of two things, which according to Longman Online Dictionary are either "the belief that it is good to buy and use a lot of goods and services - often used to show disapproval" or "actions to protect people from unfair prices, advertising that is not true etc". I will mostly be using consumerism in its first meaning, but will surely mention it in its second one too. Another important term is consumer culture, in the sense best described as by following: "A culture may be understood as a pattern of beliefs, values, meanings and customs shared by a group of people, often existing at an implicit or taken-for-granted level. Consumer culture suggests that consumption - the act of buying goods or services - is a cultural activity, one imbued with meaning and driven not just by practical or economic factors. Mapping and exploring the business implications of these cultural meanings is one of the principal functions of qualitative market research." Consequently consumer society is one very closely tied to the act of consumption, also "the society of learning to consume, of social training in consumption. That is to say, there is a new and specific mode of socialization related to the emergence of new productive forces and the monopoly restructuring of a high-productivity economic system."
1.1 The Frankfurt School and Other Social Critics
German philosopher, economist and sociologist, as well as a political revolutionary, Karl Marx (1818-1883) was one of the first to address the issue of social stratification and inequality, he believed were the main result of capitalist economic system. In his magnum opus, Capital (Das Kapital, 1867-1894), Marx unites the field of economics, sociology and history to write about the capitalist system in the most detailed manner, for the subject at hand clearly required it so. His main topics feature a description of commodities, the bourgeoisie, proletariat, capitalist production and exploitation of workers, together with the complex causal relationship connecting them. Marx had little faith in the capitalist system as a viable and flourishing solution for society on the long run, as opposed to the socialist model. "Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks." According to Marx, consumerism is the process of the working class producing goods for the rich, which will result in overproduction. He did not see how this unstable system could continuously maintain profits and also be beneficial to the individuals living in this kind of society.
American economist and sociologist, also a leading figure of the institutional economics movement is Thorstein Veblen (1857 -1929), the author of the popular work The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Applying both an economic and sociologic perspective in this work, Veblen pointed out two different realities concerning the capitalist economic system, namely the industry which was based on actual production, and business, which, in his view exists only to make profits for the leisure class without any work put in to compensate for it. The term "conspicuous consumption", coined by the author, refers to the activity of the leisure class, who carelessly spend without putting in any effort of labor to compensate. "Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure. As wealth accumulates on his hands, his own unaided effort will not avail to sufficiently put his opulence in evidence by this method." He sees as their only purpose a display of wealth to establish a certain status in society and goes against the idea of production solely for profit.
The Frankfurt School is made up of social thinkers and theorists, founded with the establishment of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt, in 1923. Being an elitist group, they criticized both capitalism and Soviet socialism. Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Herbert Marcuse (1898-1978), Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1970), Jürgen Habermas (1929) are four of the most prominent members, whose main concern was stating a disapproval of modern culture and scientific progress, which they believed to be more disadvantageous to society, limiting the freedom of the individual by constructing a web of false standards one will need to live up to. The Frankfurt School is considered a further thinking of Marxist critique of capitalism broadening it to the before mentioned modern culture, without assuming that a revolution is necessary or even expected to occur, since the current system of capitalism is doing so well in getting people from all social layers bound ideologically into and physically to it.
On the other hand what the school embraces almost unchanged from Marx's theory is his concept of commodity fetishism: "A commodity is a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men's labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. [â€¦] This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities." Thus, in a capitalist society, individuals do not want a product for itself, with the purpose of satisfying a real need, for its use-value, but rather for its symbolic, social meaning, its exchange value, solely determined by the market based on analyzing the existing supply and demand, and this way marketing can produce demand for products of no use.
Modern capitalism succeeded in creating a higher standard of living in a society now controlled also by mass media, shaping and being shaped by popular culture. As I mentioned before, marketing provides people with a myriad of different brands and products which helps create a false needs in buyers, the fulfillment of which will consequently create false sense of happiness and freedom of choice.
Another main subject of the Frankfurt school critics is culture and culture industry, its present state and the changes its heading towards. Due to exchange value overpowering use value of objects, the boundary that existed for a very long time between high art (associated with aristocracy and the elite) and low art (associated with the working and lower classes) is to be dismantled, mass production stepping in, producing for mass consumption. "High culture is what
we listen to while we are on hold waiting for customer service. It is what we pass on our way to the museum gift shop. It is what we buy to decorate our living rooms. Even where high culture is not simply a commodity, it functions more and more like a commodity, with an emphasis on the new, the latest, the attention getting, the controversial, the shocking."