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Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Review of Psychoanalytic Accounts of Consuming Desire: Hearts of Darkness by John Desmond

Psychoanalytic Accounts of Consuming Desire: Hearts of Darkness
John Desmond

Contemplating next-door neighbours, Desmond ponders ‘What unspeakable fantasies are harboured beneath his or her benign countenance that dare not speak their name in the Journal of Consumer Research?’ This is the challenge that Desmond sets for himself: to pull our understandings of consumer behaviour into conversation with over a century of rich psychoanalytic theory and gain insights into consumers’ unconscious hearts of darkness. Readings are thus presented into unconscious imperatives and Oedipal complexes observable to the trained eye and to be found in tobacco adverts, debates surrounding ecology, fears of the so-called sexualisaton of children and the rise of what Desmond argues to be new forms of hysteria like bulimia. Hearts of Darkness is a timely addition to marketing’s burgeoning interest in psychoanalysis and stands alongside a nascent body of work that demonstrates renewed interest in motivational research and psychoanalytic theories and practices (see, for example, Schwarkopf & Gries, 2009; Tadajewski, 2006). Given that consumers are often understood to be irrational and narcissistic, that consumerism invests emotional energy into objects, that advertising tends to operate in the symbolic and sexualised realm and that brands offer identities for introjection, it is puzzling just how little interest consumer researchers have demonstrated into psychoanalytic theory. For those seeking to engage first time round with such a strange body of theory, Hearts of Darkness provides an accessible and invaluable point of entry that adds significantly to the few existing consumption analyses of psychoanalysis. 

That psychoanalysis should be remote to studies of consumption and marketing is itself a curious phenomenon. As Desmond notes, whilst Freud’s 150th anniversary in 2006 was marked by many subject areas, marketing seemed disinterested in assessing his contribution. Tadajewski’s (2006) history of the decline of motivational research (a particular form of market research that stemmed from psychoanalysis and was primarily associated with the work of Ernest Dichter) in marketing is telling in suggesting that external pressures stemming from the American Cold War zeitgeist may have rendered psychoanalysis incommensurable with prejudiced ideals of scientific business scholarship. In such a climate where White Anglo Saxon Protestant pragmatism prevailed, there was strangeness in considering the controversy of the unconscious mind and its charismatic commissioners. Amid such context, psychoanalysis throws us into a domain in which we must explore mental structures and tendencies that do not exist for common sense and are typically articulated as an outcome of intense therapeutic discourse. As Tadajewski (2006) notes, the fabric of motivational research did not quite disappear but rather, appropriately, became sublimated into subject areas like interpretive consumer research and consumer culture theory. Whilst consumer research only rarely explicitly refers to Freudian theory (for instance in the work of Morris Holbrook), basic psychoanalytic theory nonetheless remains paradoxically familiar and foreign to the subject area, a truly uncanny mode of analysis. Therefore, [with a nod to Atkinson & Houseley’s (2003) study of interactionism] we might say that we were never psychoanalytic but also that we were always psychoanalytic. Either way, it is high time that psychoanalysis was given its due and taken seriously within the theoretical canon and subjected to proper readings. 

John Desmond speaking at Royal Holloway

And so John Desmond presents Hearts of Darkness. Readers are plunged from the offset into Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and may well quickly identify with the dreaming Freud as he perplexedly peers down the throat of Irma and beckons us to regard distorted dreams and fantasies as rabbit-holes into our unconscious mind. The discussion of how Freud understood dreams leads Desmond to analyse consumer research and popular ideas of subliminal advertising and general conceptions of the unconscious in marketing. Desmond notes how a recent article in the Journal of Consumer Research by McFerran et al (2010) found dieters and non-dieters behaving differently when attended by a thin, rather than obese, server and concludes that such scholarship presents interesting parallels with psychoanalytic presumptions of a motivated and goal-driven unconscious. This pattern sets the structure of the book: each chapter presents a deep engagement with specific seminal psychoanalytic theory which is then broadly reflected upon with reference to wider social theory, specific consumer research as well as general societal discussions. A range of subjects are thus presented including sexuality, self-control, hysteria, mimesis, lack, desire, death and narcissism.

The breadth and scope of topics raised is impressive and many theoretical propositions are probed at depth, most notably the theory of Freud, Lacan and Girard. Desmond also skilfully synopsises and contrasts theorists who considered psychoanalytic insights with reference to wider issues of social enquiry: scholars like Elias, Fromm, Lasch and Marcuse. To be sure, this is a text bursting with theoretical overviews and insight - a lifetime of reading and reflection - and Desmond has done an invaluable job in unpacking and representing so much complex theory in such a palatable and personable way. Naturally with so much theory presented, so much is necessarily excluded or scantily addressed and some readers might note with disappointment the absence of, or limited engagement with, major theorists like Klein, Zizek or Jung.

Indeed discussions that relate psychoanalytic insight to consumer behaviour prove no easy task and throughout a sense prevails that Desmond struggles to find relevant studies. As Frosh (2010) notes, psychoanalysis is first and foremost a therapeutic practice and conceiving the applications and implications as psychoanalysis moves outside the clinic can be difficult. The gulf between psychoanalytic insight and consumer research methodology often becomes evident - for example, questions of the power of images to unwittingly seduce consumers are corresponded with surely facile studies in which respondents are asked to express their opinion of the portrayal of advertising images. In a subject area that can be discerned between, on the one hand, approaches that frame consumers as active, rational processors of information whose attitudes can be measured by Likert scales that are expected to directly reflect consumer behaviour and, on the other hand, agentic consumers whose identity projects encounter and deconstruct market ideologies, the idea of an active unstable unconscious that structures and determines behaviour is positively disruptive, if not subversive. At once such an idea recalls earlier marketing scandals involving Vicary’s controversial studies into movie popcorn sales and Packard’s Hidden Persuaders - the best-selling investigative book that accused marketers of subtle manipulation of the unconscious. These scandals, one suspects, remain potent within the subject and may leave scholars cautious and reluctant to broach explicit questions relating to affecting the unconscious. Yet Desmond, disappointingly, has little to say about the methodological implications of psychoanalysis either in terms of the technical challenges of moving the theory outside the clinic and into the supermarket, or the ethical and political consequences of so doing. Perhaps the question should be asked, are the ethical implications at stake so stark that such scholarship might best be avoided altogether?

Where discussions turn to politics, it is mostly with reference to such counter-cultural concerns as, for example, Marcuse’s famous ‘policeman inside one’s one head’ whilst Girardian theory relating to the killing of the scapegoat as a means of reliving antagonism suggests a pessimistic, if not reactionary, rendering of human nature and political possibility. Though such a notional conservatism is perhaps not unsympathetic to Freud’s own fears of unbridled masses as depicted in Civilisation and its Discontents, it nonetheless marks Desmond’s disengagement from radical psychoanalytic political analyses of the sort found in the work of scholars like Slavoj Zizek. Similarly one might be forgiven for imagining that Freud was presenting a theory of heteronormativity for the patriarchy and whilst statements relating to ‘normality’ and ‘perversion’ are often contextualised, just how scholars like Butler and Segal have used psychoanalysis as arsenal for feminist and queer interventions are generally omitted or under-stated. Again, however, in a book that offers so much, it seems harsh to overly reflect on what is missing.

But if there is a disappointing sense of lack in Hearts of Darkness it is because Desmond seems to shy away from presenting a psychoanalytic theory of consumer behaviour itself. Fence sitting ensues – for example, Desmond synopsises the fascinating public exchange between Packard and Dichter but concludes the section without taking a side, just as he abruptly terminates the book without an overall conclusion. Rather the task that Desmond sets for himself is a more humble one of introducing readers to complex theory and thinking through their parallels in consumption. This is a worthwhile goal for Desmond to set for himself and it is one in which the book certainly satisfies. As mentioned, given the widespread neglect of over a century of psychoanalytic theory by consumer research, it is hardly realistic or fair to expect Desmond to pull a theory of consumer behaviour and psychoanalysis together in one swoop. In fact he would have been mad to try. What his book does do is present a generous and thought-provoking synopsis of a huge body of psychoanalytic theory and begin the process of thinking through its relevance for consumer behaviour. As such this is essential reading for those interested in both psychoanalysis and consumer behaviour and the book is certainly to be recommended. The next step, it seems to me, is to build a theory of consumption and psychoanalysis and to think through the methodological, ethical and political consequences. If this is indeed held to be the challenge, then there is no doubt that despite the inevitable criticisms, Desmond’s book provides an entirely worthwhile and important stepping stone towards that aim. It is a book to be read carefully and enjoyed and like all good texts, leaves us asking for more.

Review is to be published in the International Journal of Advertising

Atkinson, P. & Housely, W.  (2003)  Interactionism. London: Sage
Frosh, S. (2010) Psychoanalysis Outside the Clinic. London:  Palgrave Macmillan
McFerran, B., Dahl, D., Fitzsimons, G.  &  Morales, A. (2010). ‘I’ll have what she’s having: the social influence of obese consumers on the food choices of others’, Journal of Consumer Research, 36(6):915-929.
Schwarzkopf, S. & Gries, R. (2009)  Ernest Dichter and Motivation Research: New Perspectives on the Making of Post-War Consumer Culture. London: Palgrave Macmillian
Tadajewski, M. (2006)  ‘Remembering motivation research: towards an alternative genealogy of consumer research’, Marketing Theory 6(4):429-466.

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