Postmodernism [is] less a theory than a systematic modification of capitalism (Jeffries, p.364)
This review opens with the above quote from Stuart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss (2017), a book which chronicles the lives of the Frankfurt School (Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse). Featherstone himself says that his interest in the Frankfurt scholars is what drove him towards a study of consumer culture and postmodernism. (1991, p.vii) A Professor of Sociology in ICCE, Featherstone is also the founding editor of the journals Theory, Culture & Society (1982) and Body & Society (1995), as well as being the editor of the Theory, Culture & Society (1990) series of books. Consumer Culture & Postmodernism (1991) is his second book.
With that, Consumer Culture & Postmodernism is the author’s attempt at dissecting consumer culture across many aspects of society, from fashion to TV to the inner cities, and linking it to the much-asked question of ‘what do we mean when we say postmodern?’
It is tempting to disregard Featherstone’s text as being one that is very much a product of its time; that its points cannot possibly hold relevance in today’s society, what with the ever-extending reach of the internet (something that Consumer Culture…could not possibly have predicted). However, that is spurious reasoning. After all, Marx’s words still hold relevance in today’s society, despite a multitude of advances that could not have been foreseen. With that, it’s worth bearing in mind that this is a retrospective review which seeks to look only at the issues Featherstone covered and not so much at their anachronistic placing.
Topics that are covered across the book’s ten chapters include: a general theory of consumer culture, lifestyle, aestheticization in everyday life, change in media culture, religion’s place in modern society in a postmodern world; all of which tie together for a better understanding of what postmodernism is. Featherstone uses qualitative methods to poke deeper into the hows and whys of his thesis. He pulls various sources from a range of influential sociologists and thinkers, including Baudrillard, Simmel and Bourdieu (little mention of Adorno, surprisingly) in order to reach his conclusion.
The book opens by asking the reader to consider what postmodernism means and that this question may lead one to be accused of jumping on some bandwagon (p.1). A definition of the term is key, it seems, and Featherstone remarks on the importance of the academics in society in helping us to understand this enigma (this pointing towards the intellectuals of society for answers is a constant theme that the author refers to regularly). Do we need the guidance of the intellectual superiors to help us understand what postmodernism is? (p.5) How do we define what is postmodern in consumer culture?
It is a ponderous quandary, one in which the author is seemingly willing to uncover, dividing its elements in three ways:
- A field approach, such as in the academic or intellectual fields, or even the arts (p.9)
- The circulation to audiences, including feedback and response – aka the cultural sphere (p.10)
- Changes in the practices and every day living of groups within society, including the rise of competition within postmodern culture and the shifting of audiences (p.11)
In these aspects, we may find Featherstone’s true answer to the question. But it is interesting to note at this point, that he seems to rely quite heavily on the input of the intellectuals; as though they hold the key to the answer. However, before an answer can be reached, the book wants the reader to contemplate the historic relevance of consumer culture in order to see where postmodernism lies (a term which he feels is used largely by the intellectuals of society rather than by ‘ordinary’ people).
He goes on to discuss theories surrounding consumer culture, outlining three perspectives on page 13:
- The increase in consumer goods at the hands of increased capitalist production
- A social bond is created by consumers using the products acquired
- Pleasure derived consumption
However, Featherstone wishes to argue for a ‘culture’ of consumption rather than the production of consumerism, particularly from a detached sociological perspective that neither decries nor celebrates consumerism. He is perhaps aware, then, that to be a consumer (or to engage in consumerism) can be seen in a negative way as opposed to an objective way.
For Featherstone, to be a consumer is to entertain two seemingly juxtaposed ideas about lifestyle and culture. In his example, he talks about a woman in two adverts who dresses to both impress and to express some ideological freedom (pp.26-27) saying that in contemporary culture, “men and women are asked not to choose, but to incorporate both options.” (p.27)
He continues in chapter three by discussing the sociology of postmodernism; arguing that an interest in culture and the arts began to find a new place in mass society, away from eccentricity (p29) (the word postmodernism itself allegedly having been coined by Toynbee in 1947). Here we begin to understand the historical context of the term and indeed Featherstone makes a brief attempt at a broad definition, at least in art. He describes it as a way to: “collapse the old distinctions between high culture and mass culture, to challenge the notion of the autonomous creative artist and artisanal definition of art that modernism perpetuated.” (p.39)
Moving away from art for now, Featherstone goes on to talk about the changing of culture being brought into the limelight to try and explain how new techniques in cultural production and the questioning of the “deep cultural coding” (p.51) encourages a yearning for knowledge. Here he takes a deeper look at a culture of production, such as television shows, whereby he becomes critical of the intellectuals (including Jameson) for their lamentations at the loss of high culture through postmodernism:
Rather than succumb to the nostalgia of the intellectuals…we should acknowledge that particular versions of culture are carried and manipulated by various groups in a struggle to appropriate signs and use them in terms of their own particular interests. (p.56)
For Featherstone, postmodernism does not replace high culture, rather it secularises it, perhaps even invites lower culture into it (p.62). This becomes more evident as he moves onto the ‘aestheticization of everyday life’, in which he not only looks at life through the postmodern lens, but invites the question of how far postmodernism goes back. Here he uses Baudrillard’s words to perhaps reflect his own interpretation of postmodernism, in that it is the “shocks, jolts, and vivid presentness captured by the break from traditional forms of sociation.” (p.65) He moves into a discussion of life as a work of art in itself, a kind of melding of the boundaries between the two. He identifies a number of aspects of this aestheticization, such as Dada and the surrealist movement after World War I, the creation of a pleasing aesthetic for life (the author outlines Dandyism as an example) and the signs and images which remain ubiquitous in society (p.66) He also continues to channel Baudrillard with his reference to the commodity-sign and the simulation of reality in TV.
There is talk of postmodernism in the everyday life as though it is seemingly everywhere. He covers a broad range of ideas about postmodern life in society, from fashion, to billboards and shop windows dressed as ‘dream worlds,’ as well as the ‘cultural intermediaries’ who “have an important role in educating the public into new styles and tastes.” (p.77) But there is also the transgressions that are present in the social aesthetic, such as the carnivals and funfairs of a bygone era in which “the distinction between high/low, official/popular, grotesque/classical are mutually constructed and deformed.” (p.79) For the author, postmodernism in consumer culture has a reach that stretches further back through time than many would have originally thought.
At this point, an idea is beginning to set as to what the author feels is the best way to describe what postmodernism is. He seems to be suggesting that what is postmodern is that which is a step further from modern (the word itself could cause confusion, Featherstone argues, as ‘post’ refers to after, whereas ‘postmodern’ is more about deviation), one which is formed by transgressions, which corrupts the traditional and inserts itself into everyday life.
From the art of everyday living to lifestyles, he points his research towards the denizens of the postmodern societies, living, as they do, postmodern lives. He identifies two features of consumer culture:
Firstly, on the cultural dimension of the economy, the symbolization and use of material goods as ‘communicators’ not just utilities; and secondly, on the economy of cultural goods, the market principles of supply, demand, capital accumulation, competition, and monopolization which operate within the sphere of lifestyles, cultural good and commodities. (p.84)
We can garner from this that consumer culture is about the acquisition of material goods as useful and necessary items, but also as a communicator of lifestyle and perhaps even class status. With this he outlines the ‘petit bourgeois’ (p.90) a breed of consumer who, despite little capital, yearns for a lifestyle drenched in higher class distinctions and notions of taste. This suggests a further aspect of postmodernism as lifestyle: a desire for some aspect of culture that may be outside of one’s reach. We may refer to this as ‘pretentiousness’.
He seems to suggest that the intellectuals have taken it upon themselves to read into taste and popular culture, dissecting and analysing its content for deeper meaning. In this, we may see that it is the intellectuals who are responsible for the crossover of high art into mass consumption, such as via museums that display pop art or modern trinkets next to more antiquated exhibits etc.
From the sociological interest in postmodernism, to its brief history and relevance in old society, to aspects that exists within culture (including culture and lifestyles itself), Featherstone also shows an interest in the architecture and design of cities in which they too show evidence of postmodernism. He examines the extent to which cities such as Florence or Venice speak of culture. In discussing Disneyworld, he once again returns to Baudrillard’s notion of simulation, which takes the consumer through white-knuckle rides and the simulated, childlike worlds seeped in history and wonder. (p.101)
From here, the author moves on to religion’s role in consumer culture. He suggests that priests may also be counted in his list of ‘symbolic producers’ (alongside the intellectuals and artists). He asks where do people seek religious fulfilment in a world that has largely abandoned organised faith? It is, according to Featherstone, to be seen in the music festivals of the likes of Woodstock in the 60s (p.122) With traditional values become corrupted, invaded almost, by postmodern ideas, Featherstone wonders whether there has been worry amongst those higher up in society who often saw themselves as educators seeking to teach the masses about better tastes (p.136). In this, the intellectuals and upper classes would likely see postmodernism as a threat to their values.
It is clear in Consumer Culture & Postmodernism that Featherstone is able to outline a multitude of ways in which culture has been consumed by the postmodern, invited it almost. He argues for a movement towards a ‘common culture’ in which the “symbols, myths, memories, heroes, events, landscapes and traditions [can be] woven together in popular consciousness.” (p.146)
Society has clearly shifted with the times thanks in part to the art movement of the early to mid 20th Century, which was adopted by the intellectuals to instil an idea about life, taste and society as a whole and can be broken up and dissected (as Featherstone has) by those with sociological interests.
So what of a definition of ‘postmodernism’ not only as an adjective, but as a whole movement? While the author hints from various sources at a final conclusive answer (many would argue there isn’t one!) this final quote is probably the closest Featherstone gets:
The use of the term [postmodernism] has the merit of directing us towards what are perceived to be significant changes in artistic and popular cultural practices, regimes of signification and modes of orientation within everyday life. (p.98)
Featherstone, M. (1991) Consumer Culture & Postmodernism. SAGE Publications. (p.vii, p.1, p.5 p.9, p.10, p.11, p.13, pp.26-27, p.29, p.39, p.51, p.56, p.62, p.65, p.66, p.77, p.79, p.84, p.90, p.98 p.101, p.122, p.146)
Jeffries, S. (2017) Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School. Verso. (p.364)
Featherstone, M. (2018) Professor Mike Featherstone. Goldsmiths. Available at: https://www.gold.ac.uk/icce/staff/featherstone/ [Accessed: 9th April 2018]