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Friday, 7 September 2012

Consumption Culture Theory & the Return of History

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of Fukayaman post-politics, all that was left was for the Soviet era to return in the form of benign consumer nostalgia. In 2003 the German movie Goodbye Lenin! sparked a flood of nostalgia for the days of the DDR and jars of Spreewald Gherkins that typified a resurgence across various post-Communist states. Trabants, Spreewald Gherkins, Druzhba cheese and Sovetskoye champagne are just some of the old products and brands that seem to have been injected with nostalgic value (see Kravets and Orge 2010). Meanwhile we see the rise of Cultural Revolution restaurants that serve food, display artefacts and clothes from the communist era in China whilst equivalent establishments can be found from Budapest to St Petersburg. Within such consumer culture and marketing phenomena, communism re-appears as a benign, soft memory of bittersweet days and hence the continued presence of such brands have been interpreted by Davis & Kravets as acting as bridges to displaced meaning.

Yet the spectre of a renewed communism that haunts Europe also takes another form and the sites to see these resurgences are not limited to Berlin’s DDR museum or the Yugonostalgia theme park in Serbia but rather within the public spaces in which critical debate take place. Many of the leading critical theorists– from Badiou to Hardt to Nancy to Negri to Ranncierre to Žižek convene in conferences in Berlin and London to discuss the rehabilitation of communism. Meanwhile Alain Badiou, arguably the most prominent critical theorist of our age, leads discussion with his insistence of communism’s eternality:

The communist hypothesis remains the right hypothesis, as I have said, and I do not see any other. If this hypothesis should have to be abandoned, then it is not worth doing anything in the order of collective action. Without the perspective of communism, without this Idea, nothing in the historical and political future is of such a kind as to interest the philosopher. Each individual can pursue their private business, and we won’t mention it again.

Concurrently there is a resurgence of interest in Marxism. For example, the geographer David Harvey has been recording a series of highly popular YouTube short lectures designed to guide the exponentially burgeoning number of Capital reading groups that are to be found across the world, especially in Europe. Not surprisingly there has been a series of new Marx readers brought to the market by David Harvey, and Frederic Jameson whilst Terry Eagleton’s  popular press Why Marx Was Right even somehow became a temporary best seller on the Amazon business literature charts! 

The background to such resurgence must surely be understood with reference to contemporary events that challenge the liberal-capitalo-parliamentarian hegemony while a series of catastrophic economic eventualities tear across Europe, imposing austerity and producing obvious cases of injustice. Meanwhile across the Arab Spring revolutionary politics re-appear in a form that poses questions of commensurability with European movements, from mass occupations in Athens to the rise of the Indignados in Madrid. The Occupy Wall Street movement quickly spread and delivers us to a period in which, as Costas Douzinas puts it, the Real of History has returned and Fukayama inspired dreams of an end of ideological struggle expire

The return of the Real of History calls into question previous postmodern assumptions regarding the fragmentation of time. Within such perspectives, models that assume an arrow-like linearity of time dissipate until a fluidity becomes manifest between time and space. In such a context, nostalgia becomes a postmodern phenomenon of consumer culture whereby past and present co-exist and mutate in each other’s company. Here the benign rehabilitation of communist artefacts can be understood in a fragmented sense: as artefacts divested of their political meaning and existing alongside a series of freely floating signifiers. However the contemporary return of history disrupts this fragmentation and returns us, violently, to the Real of time and with the apparent recognition of a finitude and historical contingency of capital. As Badiou notes, the process of subjectivation that takes place in events where people recognise themselves as subjects of history reasserts connectivities of time. Such circumstances pressurise marketing’s theoretical coordinates of consumer nostalgia and may require an alteration of the form of analysis.

For the field of consumer research in general and consumer culture theory in particular this resurgence of active history is disorientating. The relationship between the field and canonical critical theory is well established with leading leftist theorists like Michel Foucault, Theodor Adorno, Pierre Bourdieu and Roland Barthes regularly cited yet these citations, in an age of where history seemed to have achieved itself, arguably shares the same theoretical coordinates of benign communist consumer nostalgia as engaging with radical theory is assumed to be a form of mixing freely floating signifiers, divested of their politics and hence not necessarily implying any form of political engagement. Now that critical theory has been re-energised and History returns, does the politicality of citation become contentious again? What are the implications of citing theory from the revolutionary left, or at least of scholars who were clearly working through issues related to revolt, during a time of potential revolt? Can scholars still insist upon a reflexive distance between their research and the politics of their conceptual tools as though the encounter is entirely neutral? And what of the return of questions of social justice and revolution to theory, seriously intended? Must consumer culture theory advocate a political position? Or even more pointedly, can consumer culture theory continue to legitimately evade the politics of its own theoretical canon? 


  1. when nothing goes right... go left :)

    Alan, I'd argue that "the benign rehabilitation of communist artefacts" is not so much about the past or longing for the past. rather, it is a commentary on the present - a critique of a postsocialist neoliberal state. perhaps even an attempt to imagine an alternative. thus, "communist artefacts" are not "divested of their political meaning" but are political through and through (for good e.g. see Klumbyte on Soviet sausage). Then, framing analytically this phenomenon as consumer nostalgia not only sustains the idea that history is linear but importantly glosses over the politics implicated there, hence makes it a comfortable topic for consumer culture theory/ists...

  2. Maybe the Ostagie has two different sides to it. For someone from the East, they probably just miss their old way of life, as its just tradition though they aren't too crazy about the Stasi and all. People from the West probably are just curious about what the East is like if they have never been there. They wonder what life was like and just how different it was, or just fascinated because its different.

    I don't think its necessarily about freedom, but culture differences.