Possibilities — Part 1, Chapter 2 : The Very Idea of Consumption: Desire, Phantasms, and the Aethetics of Destruction from Medieval Times to the Present

By David Graeber

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Untitled Anarchism Possibilities Part 1, Chapter 2

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(1961 - 2020)

Anarchist, Anthropologist, Occupy Movement Organizer, and Anti-Bullshit Jobs Activist

David Rolfe Graeber was an American anthropologist and anarchist activist. His influential work in economic anthropology, particularly his books Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Bullshit Jobs , and his leading role in the Occupy movement, earned him recognition as one of the foremost anthropologists and left-wing thinkers of his time. Born in New York to a working-class Jewish family, Graeber studied at Purchase College and the University of Chicago, where he conducted ethnographic research in Madagascar under Marshall Sahlins and obtained his doctorate in 1996. He was an assistant professor at Yale University from 1998 to 2005, when the university controversially decided not to renew his contract before he was eligible for tenure. Unable to secure another position in the United States, he entered an "academic exile" in England, where he was a lecturer and reader at Goldsmiths' College from 2008 to 2013, and a professor at the London School of Economic... (From: Wikipedia.org / TheGuardian.com.)

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Part 1, Chapter 2

2 — The Very Idea of Consumption: Desire, Phantasms, and the Aethetics of Destruction from Medieval Times to the Present

This essay is not a critique of consumerism. It’s not meant to offer yet another exposé of the evils of mass consumption or of contemporary consumer practices. I want to ask instead why it is we talk about “consumption” or “consumer practices” at all. Why is it, when we see someone buying refrigerator magnets, and someone else putting on eye-liner, or cooking dinner, or singing at a karaoke bar, or just sitting around watching TV, we assume that they are on some level doing the same thing, that it can be described as “consumption” or “consumer behavior,” and that these are all in some way analogous to eating food? I want to ask where this term came from, why we ever started using it, what it says about our assumptions about property, desire, and social relations that we continue to use it. Finally, I want to suggest that maybe this is not the best way to think about such phenomena and that we might do well to come up with better ones.

To do so necessarily means taking on a whole intellectual industry that has developed, over the last few decades, around the study of consumption. For most scholars, not only is the category of “consumption” self-evident in its importance, one of the greatest sins of past social theorists was their failure to acknowledge it.[33] Since the early 1980s, theoretical discussions of consumption in anthropology (sociology, semiotics, or cultural studies, too, for that matter) almost invariably begin by denouncing past scholars for having refused to give the topic sufficient due. Usually they offer a little morality tale. Once upon a time, it begins, we all used to subscribe to a Marxist view of political economy that saw production as the motor of history, and only truly legitimate field of social struggle. Insofar as we even thought about consumer demand, it was largely written off as an artificial creation, the results of manipulative techniques by advertizers and marketers meant to unload products that nobody really needed. Eventually, the story continues, we began to realize that this view was not only mistaken, it was profoundly elitist and puritanical. Real working people find most of life’s pleasures in consumption. They do not simply swallow whatever marketers throw at them like so many mindless automatons; they create their own meanings out of the products with which they chose to surround themselves. In fact, insofar as they fashion identities for themselves, those identities are largely based on the cars they drive, clothes they wear, music they listen to, and videos they watch. In denouncing consumption, we are denouncing what gives meaning to the lives of the very people we claim we wish to liberate.

For me, the interesting question about this story is who the “we” in question is supposed to be. After all, it would be one thing to encounter such arguments coming from someone like Jean Baudrillard, who actually had started out as a Marxist critic of consumerism. It’s quite another to hear the story invoked in the 1990s by cultural anthropologists like Daniel Miller (1995) or Jonathan Friedman (1994), members of a discipline that to my knowledge never actually produced any such Situationist or Frankfurt-school-style analysis of consumption to begin with. Why, then, decades later, are we still repeating variations on this same morality tale?

No doubt there are many reasons. Probably one is that it resonates with a common life experience for academics, who often do have to struggle with their own adolescent revulsion against consumer culture as they become older and more established. Still, the real (and rather perverse) effect of this narrative is to import the categories of political economy—the picture of a world divided into two broad spheres—one of industrial production, another of consumption—where it had never existed before. It is no coincidence, here, that this is a view of the world equally dear to Marxist theorists who once wished to challenge the world capitalist system, and to the Neoliberal economists who are currently managing it.

It is precisely this picture I would like to question here. I want to ask how it comes about that we call certain kinds of behavior “consumption,” rather than something else. It is a curious fact, for example, that those who write about consumption almost never define the term. I suspect this is, in part, because the tacit definition they are using is so extraordinarily broad. In common academic usage (and to an only slightly less degree, popular usage) “consumption” has come to mean “any activity that involves the purchase, use, or enjoyment of any manufactured or agricultural product for any purpose other than the production or exchange of new commodities.” For most wage-laborers, this means nearly anything they do when not working for wages. Imagine, for example, four teenagers who decide to form a band. They scare up some instruments, teach themselves to play; they write songs, come up with an act, practice long hours in the garage. Now, it seems reasonable to see such behavior as production of some sort or another, but in existing social science literature, it would be much more likely to be placed in the sphere of consumption, simply because they did not themselves manufacture the guitars![34] It is precisely by defining “consumption” so broadly, in fact, that one can then turn around and claim that consumption has been falsely portrayed as passive acquiescence, when in fact it is more often an important form of creative self-expression. Perhaps the real question should be: why does the fact that manufactured goods are involved in an activity automatically come to define its very nature?

It seems to me that this theoretical choice—the assumption that the main thing people do when they are not working is “consume” things—carries within it a tacit cosmology, a theory of human desire and fulfillment whose implications we would do well to think about.[35] This is what I want to investigate in the rest of this paper.

Let me begin by looking at the history of the word itself.


The English “to consume” derives from the Latin verb consumere, meaning “to seize or take over completely,” and hence, by extension, to “eat up, devour, waste, destroy, or spend.” To be consumed by fire, or for that matter consumed with rage, still holds the same implications: not just thoroughly taken over, but overwhelmed in a way that dissolves away the autonomy of the object, or even, that destroys the object itself.

“Consumption” first appears in English in the fourteenth century. In early French and English usages, the connotations were almost always negative. To consume something meant to destroy it, to make it burn up, evaporate, or waste away. Hence, wasting diseases “consumed” their victims: a usage that according to the Oxford English Dictionary is already documented by 1395. This is why tuberculosis came to be known as “consumption.” At first, the now-familiar sense of consumption as eating or drinking was very much a secondary meaning. Rather, when applied to material goods, “consumption” was almost always synonymous with waste: it meant destroying something that did not have to be (at least quite so thoroughly) destroyed.[36]

The contemporary usage, then, is relatively recent. If we were still talking the language of the fourteenth or even seventeenth centuries, a “consumer society” would have meant a society of wastrels and destroyers.

Consumption in the contemporary sense only really appears in the literature of political economy in the late eighteenth century, when authors like Adam Smith and David Ricardo began to use it as the opposite of “production.”[37] One of the crucial features of the industrial capitalism emerging at the time was a growing separation between the places in which people—or men, at least—worked and the places where they lived. This in turn made it possible to imagine that the “economy” (itself a very new concept) was divided into two completely separate spheres: the workplace, in which goods were “produced,” and the household, in which they were “consumed.” That which was created in one sphere is used—ultimately, used up, destroyed—in the other. Vintners produce wine; consumers take it home and drink it; chemical plants produce ink, consumers take it home, put it in pens, and write with it, and so on. Of course, even from the start, it was more difficult to see in what sense consumers were “consuming” silverware or books, since these are not destroyed by use; but since just about anything does, eventually, wear out or have to be replaced, the usage was not entirely implausible.

All this did, certainly, bring home one of the defining features of capitalism: that it is a motor of endless production; one that can only maintain its equilibrium, in fact, by continual growth. Endless cycles of destruction do seem to be, necessarily, the other side of this. To make way for new products, all that old stuff must somehow be cleared away; destroyed, or at least, cast aside as outmoded or irrelevant. And this is indeed the defining feature of “consumer society” as usually described (especially by its critics): one that casts aside any lasting values in the name of an endless cycling of ephemera. It is a society of sacrifice and destruction. And often, what seems to most fascinate Western scholars—and the Western public—about people living in radically different economic circumstances are phenomena that seem to mirror this in one way or another. George Bataille (1937) saw here a clue to the nature of culture itself, whose essence he saw as lying in apparently irrational acts of wild sacrificial destruction, for which he drew on examples such as Aztec human sacrifice or the Kwakiutl potlatch.[38] Or consider the fascination with the potlatch itself. It’s hard not to think about Northwest Coast potlatch without immediately evoking images of chiefs setting fire to vast piles of wealth—such images play a central role not only in Bataille, but also in just about every popular essay on “gift economies” since. If one examines the sources, though, it turns out most Kwakiutl potlatches were rarely stately, redistributive affairs, and our image is really based on three or four extremely unusual ones held around 1900, at a time when the Kwakiutl population was simultaneously devastated by disease, and undergoing an enormous economic boom. Clearly, the spectacle of chiefs vying for titles by setting fire to piles of blankets or other valuables strikes our imagination not so much because it reveals some fundamental truth about human nature, largely suppressed in our own society, but because it reflects a barely hidden truth about the nature of our own consumer society.

“Consumption,” then, refers to an image of human existence that first appears, in the North Atlantic world, around the time of the industrial revolution: one that sees what humans do outside the workplace largely as a matter of destroying things or using them up. It is especially easy to perceive the impoverishment this introduces into accustomed ways of talking about the basic sources of human desire and gratification by comparing it to the ways earlier Western thinkers had talked about such matters. St. Augustine or Hobbes, for example, both saw human beings as creatures of unlimited desire, and therefore concluded that if left to their own devices, they would always end up locked in competition. As Marshall Sahlins has pointed out (1996), in this they almost exactly anticipated the assumptions of later economic theory. But when they listed what humans desired, neither emphasized anything like the modern notion of consumption. In fact, both came up with more or less the same list: humans, they said, desire (1) sensual pleasures, (2) the accumulation of riches (a pursuit assumed to be largely aimed at winning the praise and esteem of others), and (3) power.[39] None were primarily about using anything up.[40] Even Adam Smith, who first introduced the term “consumption” in its modern sense in The Wealth of Nations, turned to an entirely different framework in developing a theory of desire in his Theory of Moral Sentiments: one that assumed that what most humans want above all is to be the object of others’ sympathetic attention.[41] It was only with the growth of economic theory, and its gradual colonization of other disciplines, that desire itself began to be imagined as the desire to consume.

The notion of consumption, then, that assumes that human fulfillment is largely about acts of (more or less ceremonial) material destruction, represents something of a break in the Western tradition. It’s hard to find anything written before, say, the eighteenth century that exactly anticipates it. It appears abruptly, mainly in countries like England and France, at exactly the moment when historians of those places begin to talk about the rise of something they call “consumer society,” or simply “consumerism” (Berg & Clifford 1999; McKendrick, Brewer & Plum 1982; Stearns 2001; W. Smith 2002). That is, the moment when a significant portion of the population could be said to be organizing their lives around the pursuit of something called “consumer goods,” defined as goods they did not see as necessities, but as in some sense objects of desire, chosen from a range of products, subject to the whims of fashion (ephemera again...), and so on. The ideology, and the practice, would seem to emerge as two sides of the same coin.

Theories of Desire

All this makes it sound as if the story should really begin around 1750, or even 1776. But could such basic assumptions about what people thought life is about really change that abruptly? It seems to me there are other ways to tell the story, which reveal much greater continuities. One would be to examine the concept of “desire” itself, as it emerged in the Western philosophical tradition.

Now, this might seem difficult to do because Western thinking on the matter contains a number of apparently contradictory strands. Since Plato, the most common approach has been to see desire as rooted in a feeling of absence or lack. This does makes a certain obvious intuitive sense. One desires what one doesn’t have. One feels an absence, imagines how one might like to fill it. This very action of the mind is what we think of as “desire.” But there is also an alternative tradition that goes back at least to Spinoza, which starts off not from the yearning for some absent object, but from something even more fundamental: self-preservation, the desire to continue to exist (Nietzsche’s “life which desires itself”). Here, desire becomes the fundamental energetic glue that makes individuals what they are over time. Both strands continue to do battle in contemporary social theory. Desire as lack is especially developed in the work of Jacques Lacan. The key notion here is of the “mirror stage,” where an infant, who is at first really a bundle of drives and sensations unaware of its own existence as a discrete, bounded entity, manages to construct a sense of self around some external image: for example, an encounter with her own reflection in the mirror. One can generalize from here a much broader theory of desire (or perhaps, merely desire in its more tawdry, narcissistic forms), where the object of desire is always some image of perfection, an imaginary completion for one’s own ruptured sense of self (Graeber 2002: 257–58). But then there is also the approach adopted by authors like Deleuze and Guattari (1983), who wrote Anti-Oedipus, their famous critique of psychoanalysis, largely as an attack on this kind of thinking. Appealing to the Spinozist/Nietzschean tradition, they deny that desire should be found in any sense of lack at all. Rather, it is something that “flows” between everyone and everything. Much like power in Foucault, it becomes the energy knitting everything together. As such, desire is everything and nothing; there’s very little one can actually say about it.

One might be tempted to conclude at this point, that “desire” is not a very useful theoretical concept—that is, one that can be meaningfully distinguished from needs, or urges, or intentions—since even authors working within the same, Western tradition can’t make up their minds what it is supposed to mean.[42] But if one goes back to the origins of the alternative tradition in Spinoza, one soon discovers that the two strands are not nearly as different as they appear. When Spinoza refers to the universal driving force of all beings to persist in their being and expand their powers of action, he is really not referring to desire (cupiditas) as much as to what he calls conatus, usually translated “will.” On a bodily level, conatus takes the form of a host of appetites: attractions, dispositions, and so forth. Desire is “the idea of an appetite,” the imaginative construction one puts on some such attraction or disposition.[43] In other words, the one constant element in all these definitions is that desire (unlike needs, urges, or intentions) necessarily involves the imagination. Objects of desire are always imaginary objects, and usually, imaginary totalities of some sort—since most totalities are themselves imaginary objects.

The other way one might say desire differs from needs, urges, or intentions is that, as Tzvetan Todorov puts it (2001), it always implies the desire for some kind of social relation. There is always some quest for recognition involved. The problem is that, owing to the extreme individualism typical of the Western philosophical tradition, this tends to be occluded; even where it isn’t, the desire for recognition is assumed to be the basis for some kind of profound existential conflict. The classic text here is Hegel’s “On Lordship and Bondage,” the famous “master/slave dialectic” in the Phenomenology of Spirit, that has made it difficult for future theorists to think of this kind of desire without also thinking of violence and domination.

If I may be allowed a very abbreviated summary of Hegel’s argument: human beings are not animals because they have the capacity for self-consciousness.[44] To be self-conscious means to be able to look at ourselves from an outside perspective—that must necessarily be that of another human being. All these were familiar arguments at the time; Hegel’s great innovation was to bring in desire; to point out that to look at ourselves this way, one has to have some reason to want to do it. This sort of desire is also inherent to the nature of humanity, according to Hegel, because unlike animals humans desire recognition. Animals experience desire simply as the absence of something: they are hungry, therefore they wish “negate that negation” by obtaining food; they have sexual urges, therefore they seek a mate.[45] Humans go further. They not only wish to have sex—at least, if they are being truly human about the matter—they also wish to be recognized by their partner as someone worthy of having sex with. That is: they wish to be loved. We desire to be the objects of another’s desire. So far this seems straightforward enough: human desire implies mutual recognition. The problem is that for Hegel, the quest for mutual recognition inevitably leads to violent conflict, to “life and death struggles” for supremacy. He provides a little parable: two men confront each other at the beginning of history (as in all such stories, they appear to be forty-year-old males who simply rose out of the earth fully formed). Each wishes to be recognized by the other as a free, autonomous, fully human being, but in order for the other’s recognition to be meaningful, he must prove to himself the other is fully human, and worthy of recognizing him. The only way to do this is to see if he values his freedom and autonomy so much he’s willing to risk his life for it. A battle ensures. But a battle for recognition is inherently unwinnable, since if you kill your opponent, there’s no one to recognize you; on the other hand if your opponent surrenders, he proves by that very act that he was not willing to sacrifice his life for recognition after all, and therefore, that his recognition is meaningless. One can of course reduce a defeated opponent to slavery, but even that is self-defeating because once one reduces the other—or, to put it in more Hegelian style, the Other—to slavery, one becomes dependent on one’s slave for one’s very material survival, while the slave at least produces his own life, and is in fact able to realize himself to some degree through his work.

This is a myth, a parable. Clearly there is something profoundly true in it. Still, it’s one thing to say that the quest for mutual recognition is necessarily going to be tricky, full of pitfalls, with a constant danger of descending into attempts to dominate or even obliterate the Other. It’s another thing to assume from the start that mutual recognition is impossible. As Majeed Yar has pointed out (2001), this assumption has come to dominate almost all subsequent Western thinking on the subject: especially, since Sartre refigured recognition as “the gaze” that, he argued, necessarily pins down, squashes, and objectifies the Other.[46] As in so much Western theory, when social relations are not simply ignored, they are assumed to be inherently competitive. Todorov notes (2000) that much of this is the result of starting one’s examples with a collection of adult males: psychologically, he argues, it is quite possible to argue that the first moment in which we act as fully human beings is when we seek recognition from others; but that’s because the first thing a human baby does that an animal baby does not do is to try to catch her mother’s eye, an act with rather different implications (ibid: 66–67).

At this point I think we have the elements for a preliminary synthesis. Insofar as it is useful to distinguish something called “desire” from needs, urges, or intentions, then, it is because desire

(a) is always rooted in imagination;

(b) tends to direct itself towards some kind of social relation, real or imaginary;

(c) that social relation generally entails a desire for some kind of recognition and, hence, an imaginative reconstruction of the self; a process fraught with dangers of destroying that social relation, or turning it into some kind of terrible conflict.

Now, all this is more arranging the elements of a possible theory than proposing one; it leaves open the actual mechanics of how these elements interact. But if nothing else, it helps explain why the word “desire” has become so popular with authors who write about modern consumerism—which is, we are told, all about imaginary pleasures, and the construction of identities. Even here, though, the historical connections between ideas are not what one might imagine.

Lovers and Consumers

Let me begin with Colin Campbell’s Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (1987), one of the more creative essays on the subject. Campbell’s book aims to provide a corrective to the usual critique of consumer culture as throwing up all sorts of wonderful fantasies about what you’ll get when you purchase some product, and inevitably disappointing you once you get it. It is this constant lack of satisfaction, the argument goes, that then drives consumption, and thus allows the endless expansion of production. If the system delivered on its promises, the whole thing wouldn’t work. Campbell isn’t denying this happens so much as questioning whether the process itself is really so frustrating or unpleasant as most accounts imply. Really, he says, is not all this is a form of pleasure in itself? In fact, he argues, it is the unique accomplishment of modern consumerism to have assisted in the creation of a genuinely new form of hedonism.

“Traditional hedonism,” Campbell argues, was based on the direct experience of pleasure: wine, women and song; sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll; or whatever the local variant. The problem, from a capitalist perspective, is that there are inherent limits to all this. People become sated, bored. There are logistical problems. “Modern self-illusory hedonism,” as he calls it, solves this dilemma because here, what one is really consuming are fantasies and day-dreams about what having a certain product would be like. The rise of this new kind of hedonism, he argues, can be traced back to certain sensational forms of Puritan religious life, but primarily, to the new interest in pleasure through the vicarious experience of extreme emotions and states, an interest one can see emerging with the popularity of Gothic novels and the like in the eighteenth century and which peaks with Romanticism itself. The result is a social order that has become, in large measure, a vast apparatus for the fashioning of day-dreams. These reveries attach themselves to the promise of pleasure afforded by some particular consumer good, or set of them. They produce the endless desires that drive consumption; but, in the end, the real enjoyment is not in the consumption of the physical objects, but in the reveries themselves.

The problem with this argument (or, one of them—one could find all sorts) is the claim that all of this was something new. It’s not just the obvious point that pleasure through vicarious participation in extreme experience did not first become a significant social phenomenon in the seventeenth century. It was accepted wisdom as early the eleventh century that desire was largely about taking pleasure in fantasies.

Here, I turn to the work of the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben (1993), and the Romanian historian of religions, Ioan Couliano (1987), on Medieval and Renaissance theories of love.[47] These theories all turned on the notion of what was called the “pneumatic system.” One of the greatest problems in Medieval metaphysics was to explain how it was possible for the soul (or mind) to perceive objects in the material world, since the two were assumed to be of absolutely alien natures. The solution was to posit an intermediate astral substance called pneuma, or spirit, that translated sense impressions into phantasmic images. These images then circulated through the body’s pneumatic system (which centered on the heart) before they could be comprehended by the intellectual faculties of the soul. Since this was essentially the zone of imagination, all sensations, or even abstract ideas, had to proceed through the imagination—becoming emotionally charged in the process—before they could reach the mind. Hence, erotic theory held that, when a man fell in love with a woman, he was really in love not with the woman herself but with her image; one that, once lodged in his pneumatic system, gradually came to hijack it, vampirizing his imagination and ultimately drawing off all his physical and spiritual energies. Medical writers tended to represent this as a disease that needed to be cured; poets and lovers, a heroic state that combined pleasures (in fantasy, but also, somewhat perversely, in the very experience of frustration and denial) with an intrinsic spiritual or mystical value in itself. The one thing all agreed on, though, is that anyone who got the idea that one could resolve the matter by “embracing” the object of his fantasy was missing the point. The very idea was considered a symptom of a profound mental disorder, a species of melancholia.

Agamben on Ficino:

In the same passage, the specific character of melancholic Eros was identified by Ficino as disjunction and excess. “This tends to occur,” he wrote, “to those who, misusing love, transform what rightly belongs to contemplation into the desire of the embrace.” The erotic intention that unleashes the melancholic disorder presents itself as that which would possess and touch what ought merely to be the object of contemplation, and the tragic insanity of the saturnine temperament thus finds its root in the intimate contradiction of a gesture that would embrace the unobtainable” (1993a: 17–18).

Agamben goes on to quote the French Scholastic Henry of Ghent, to the effect that melancholics “cannot conceive the incorporeal” as such, because they do not know “how to extend their intelligence beyond space and size.” For such depressive characters, lonely brooding is punctuated by frustrated urges to seize what cannot really be seized.[48]

Now, one might quibble over whether anyone was ever quite so consistently pure in their affections as all this might imply. A fair amount of “embracing” certainly did go on in Medieval Europe, as elsewhere. Still, this was the ideal and, critically, it became the model not just for sexual desire, but for desire in general. This leads to the interesting suggestion that, from the perspective of Medieval psychological theory, our entire civilization—as Campbell describes it—is really a form of clinical depression. Which, in some ways, does actually make a lot of sense.[49]

Couliano is more interested in how erotic theory was appropriated by Renaissance magicians like Giordano Bruno, for whom the mechanics of sexual attraction became the paradigm for all forms of attraction or desire, and hence, the key to social power. If human beings tend to become dominated by powerful, emotionally charged images, then anyone who developed a comprehensive, scientific understanding of the mechanics by which such images work could become a master manipulator. It should be possible to develop techniques for “binding” and influencing others’ minds: for instance, by fixing certain emotionally charged images in their heads,[50] or even little bits of music (jingles, basically) that could be designed in such a way as to keep coming back into people’s minds despite themselves, and pull them in one direction or another. In all of this Couliano sees, not unreasonably, the first self-conscious form of the modern arts of propaganda and advertising. Bruno felt his services should be of great interest to princes and politicians.

It apparently never occurred to Bruno or anyone else, in this early period, to apply such proto-advertising techniques to economic rather than political purposes. Politics, after all, is about relations between people. Manipulating others was, by definition, a political business, which I think brings out the most fundamental difference between the Medieval conception of desire and the sort of thing Campbell describes. If one starts with a model of desire where the object of desire is assumed to be a human being, then it only makes sense that one cannot completely possess the object. (“Embrace” is a nice metaphor, actually, because it is so inherently fleeting.) And one is presumably not intentionally in the business of destroying it either.

One might say, then, as a starting point, that the shift from the kind of model of desire that predominated in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, to the kind of consumerist model described by Campbell—where one can only justify the continued indulgence in the pleasure of fantasies by claiming that the real point is to acquire an endlessly increasing number of consumer products—is a shift from one whose paradigm is erotic, to one in which the primary metaphor is eating food.

Complication I: Individualism

Still, even if one examines the original Medieval version, the basic conception is already extremely individualistic. This is because it is so passive. Desire is the result of an individual receiving sense impressions from outside. Now, it is certainly true that this is one very common experience of desire: as something that seems to seize us from outside our conscious control, let alone better judgment, and often, causes us to do things for which we would really rather not hold ourselves entirely responsible. But it also allows us to overlook the fact that desire emerges in relations between people.

It’s easier to see all this if one compares this Western model of desire, as developed explicitly in Medieval and Renaissance theory and tacitly through the sort of consumer practice Campbell describes, to, say, the kind of value-based approach I have tried to develop elsewhere (Graeber 2001). Money, for example can be considered in Marxian terms as a representation of the value (importance) of productive labor (human creative action), as well as the means by which it’s socially measured and coordinated; but it is also a representation that brings into being the very thing it represents, since, after all, in a market economy, people work in order to get money. Arguably, something analogous happens everywhere. Value then could be said to be the way that the importance of one’s own actions register in the imagination—always, by translation into some larger social language or system of meaning, by being integrated into some greater social whole. It also always happens through some kind of concrete medium—which can be almost anything: wampum, oratorical performances, sumptuous tableware, kula artifacts, Egyptian pyramids—and these objects, in turn (unless they are utterly generic substances like money that represent sheer potentiality), tend to incorporate in their own structure a kind of schematic model of the forms of creative action that bring them into being, but that also become objects of desire that end up motivating actors to carry out those very actions. Just as the desire for money inspires one to labor; the desire for tokens of honor inspires forms of honorable behavior; the desire for tokens of love inspires romantic behavior; and so on.[51]

By contrast, pneumatic theory begins not from actions but from what might once have been called “passions.” Godfrey Lienhardt (1961) long ago pointed out actions and passions form a logical set—either you act on the world, or the world acts on you—but that we have become so uncomfortable with the idea of seeing ourselves as passive recipients that the latter term has almost completely disappeared from the way we talk about experience. Medieval and Renaissance authors did not yet have such qualms. In pneumatic theory, “passions” are not what one does but what is done to one (in which one is not agent but “patient”); at the same time, they referred, as they do now, to strong emotions, that seemed to seize us against our will. The two were linked: emotions like love were in fact seen as being caused by just such impressions on the pneumatic system. Far from being models of action, in fact, the passivity of the situation came to be seen as a virtue in itself: it was those who tried to act on their passions, to seize the object rather than contemplate it, who really missed the point.

Framing things in such passive terms then opened the way for that extreme individualism that appears to be the other side of the peculiarly Western theory of desire. A schema of action is almost of necessity a collective product; the impression of a beautiful image is something that one can imagine involves a relation between only two people, or even (insofar as love became a mystical phenomenon), between the desirer and God. Even with romantic love, the ideal was that it should not really be translated into an ongoing social relation, but remain a matter of contemplation and fantasy.

Complication II: Shifting Lines of Class and Gender

All this makes it easier to understand how it might be possible to shift from erotic fantasies to something more like the modern idea of “consumption.” Still, the transition, I would argue, also required a number of other conceptual shifts and displacements, both in terms of class and in terms of gender.

Compare, for example, how images of paradise, in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, varied by social milieu. When peasants, craftsmen, and the urban poor tried to imagine a land in which all desires would be fulfilled, they tended to focus on the abundance of food. Hence the Land of Cockaigne, where bloated people loll about as geese fly fully cooked into their mouths, rivers run with beer, and so forth. Carnival, as Mikhail Bakhtin so richly illustrated, expands on all the same themes, jumbling together every sort of bodily indulgence and enormity, pleasures sexual as well as gastronomic and of every other kind. Still, the predominant imagery always centers on sausages, hogsheads, legs of mutton, lard and tripes and tubs of wine. The emphasis on food is in striking contrast with visions of earthly paradise in other parts of the world at that time (say, those prevalent in Islamic world), which were mostly about sex. Erotic fantasies are usually strikingly absent from the literature on the Land of Cockaigne; or, of if they are present, seem thrown in rather as afterthoughts.

As Herman Pleij has pointed out (2001: 421), the Medieval high culture version of paradise was in many ways conceived in direct opposition to the popular one. Not that it emphasized erotic pleasures either. Instead, it tended to fix on what we would now call elite consumables, the exotic commodities of the day that were, primarily, essences: spices above all, but also incense, perfumes, and similar delicate scents and flavors. Instead of the Land of Cockaigne, one finds a hankering after the lost Garden of Eden, thought to exist somewhere in the East, near the fabled kingdom of Prester John; anyway, from somewhere near those fragrant lands whence cardamom, mace, peppers, and cumin (not to mention frankincense and myrrh) were harvested. Rather than a land of complete, fatty indulgences in every sort of food, these were often conceived as lands whose ethereal inhabitants did not have to eat at all, but simply subsisted on beautiful smells (see Schivelbusch 1992; Friedman 1981). This emphasis on refined flavors and fragrances, in turn, opens onto a whole different realm of experience: of “taste,” ephemerality, fleeting essences, and ultimately, the familiar elite consumption worlds of fashion, style, the pursuit of ungraspable novelty. Once again, then, the elite—who in reality of course tended to grasp and embrace all sorts of things—constructed their ideal of desire around that which somehow seemed to escape all possibility of permanent embrace. One might argue, then, that the modern consumer ethos is built on a kind of fusion between these two class ideals. The shift from a conception of desire modeled on erotic love to one based on the desire for food (“consumption”) was clearly a shift in the direction of popular discourse. At the same time, though, one might say the innovative aspect of modern, consumerist theories of desire is to combine the popular materialist emphasis on consumption with the notion of the ephemeral, ungraspable image as the driving force of maximization of production.

This might at least suggest a solution to what has always struck me as a profound paradox in Western social theory. As I’ve already noted, the idea of human beings as creatures tainted by original sin, and therefore, cursed with infinite wants—beings who living in a finite universe were inevitably in an state of generalized competition—was already fully developed in authors like St. Augustine, and therefore formed an accepted part of Christian doctrine throughout the Middle Ages. At the same time, very few people actually seemed to behave like this. Economically, the Middle Ages were still the time of “target incomes,” in which the typical reaction to economic good times, even among urban craftsmen and most of the proto-bourgeoisie, was to take more days off. It’s as if the notion of the maximizing individual existed in theory long before it emerged in practice. One explanation might be that at least until the Early Modern period, high culture (whether in its most Christian or most courtly versions) tended to devalue any open display of greed, appetite, or acquisitiveness, while popular culture—which could sometimes heartily embrace such impulses—did so in forms that were inherently collective. When the Land of Cockaigne was translated into reality, it was in the form of popular festivals like Carnival; almost any increase in popular wealth was immediately diverted into communal feasts, parades, and collective indulgences. One of the processes that made capitalism possible, then, was what might be termed the privatization of desire. The highly individualistic perspectives of the elite had to be combined with the materialistic indulgences of what Bakhtin liked to call the “material lower stratum.”

Getting from there to anything like the capitalist notion of consumption required, I think, one further shift: this time, not along lines of class, but of gender. The courtly love literature, and related theories of desire, represent a purely male perspective, and this no doubt was true of fantasies about the Land of Cockaigne and similar idealized worlds of gastronomic fulfillment, too.[52] Though here it was complicated by the fact that, in the folk psychology of the day, women were widely considered more lustful, greedy, and generally desirous than men. Insofar as anyone was represented as insatiable, then, it was women: the image of woman as a ravenous belly, demanding ever more sex and food, and men as haplessly laboring in an endless, but ultimately impossible, effort to satisfy them, is a standard misogynist topos going back at least to Hesiod. Christian doctrine only reinforced it saddling women with the primary blame for original sin, and thus insisting that they bore the brunt of the punishment. It was only around the time of the industrial revolution, and the full split between workplace and household, that this sort of rhetoric was largely set aside; curiously, at just the same time as consumption came to be seen as an essentially feminine business (Thomas 1971: 568–569; Davis 1975: 125–151; Graeber 1997).

On Having Your Cake and Eating It Too, and Certain Problems Incumbent Therein

What I am suggesting, then, is that while Medieval moralists accepted, in the abstract, that humans were cursed with limitless desires (that, as Augustine put it, their natures rebelled against them just as they had rebelled against God), few saw this was an existential dilemma which affected them personally. Rather, they tended to attribute such sinful predilections mainly to people they saw as social, and therefore moral, inferiors. Men saw women as insatiable; the prosperous saw the poor as grasping and materialistic, and so on. It was really in the Early Modern period that all this began to change.

Agamben has a theory as to why. He suggests that the idea that all humans are driven by infinite, unquenchable desires is only really possible when one severs imagination and experience. In the world posited by Medieval psychology, desires really could be satisfied for the very reason that they were really directed at phantasms: imagination was the zone in which subject and object, lover and beloved, really could genuinely meet and partake of one another. With Descartes, he argues, this began to change. Imagination was redefined as something inherently separate from experience—as, in fact, a compendium of all those things (dreams, flights of fancy, pictures in the mind) that one feels one has experienced but really hasn’t. It was at this point, once one was expected to try to satisfy one’s desires in what we have come to think of as “the real world,” that the ephemeral nature of experience, and therefore of any “embrace,” becomes an impossible dilemma (1993b: 25–28). One is already seeing such dilemmas worked out in De Sade, he argues: again, around same the time as the dawn of consumer culture.

This is pretty much the argument one would have to make, if one were to confine oneself, as Agamben does, entirely to literary and philosophical texts. In the last couple sections, I’ve been trying to develop a more socially nuanced approach, which argues, among other things, that the modern concept of “consumption,” which carries in it the tacit assumption that there’s no end to what anyone might want, could really only take form once certain elite concepts of desire—as the pursuit of ephemera and phantasms—fuzed, effectively, with the popular emphasis on food. Still, I don’t think this is quite a complete or adequate explanation. There is, I believe, another element, which made all this possible; perhaps, inevitable. This was the rise, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of what C.B. MacPherson first called “possessive individualism” (1962), by which he means the fact that people increasingly came to see themselves as isolated beings who define their relation with the world not in terms of social relations but in terms of property rights. It was only then that the problem of how one could “have” things, or for that matter experiences (“we’ll always have Paris”) could really become a crisis.[53]

The very notion of private property in the modern sense was fairly new. The notion of “consumption,” I would suggest, resolves a certain contradiction inherent in it. From an analytical perspective, of course, property is simply a social relation: an arrangement between persons and collectivities concerning the disposition of valuable goods. Private property is a particular form that entails one individual’s right to exclude all others—“all the world”—from access to a certain house, or shirt, piece of land, etc. A relation so broad is difficult to imagine, however, so people tend to treat it as if it were a relation between a person and an object. But what could a relation between a person and an object actually consist of?

In English law, such relations are still described according to the logic of sovereignty—that is, in terms of dominium. The power a citizen has over his own possessions is exactly the same power once held by kings and princes, and that is still retained by states in the form of “eminent domain.” This is why private property rights took so long to enshrine in law: even in England, which led the way in such matters, it was almost the eighteenth century before jurists were willing to recognize a dominium belonging to anyone other than the king.

What would it mean, then, to establish “sovereignty” over an object? In legal terms, a king’s dominium extended to his land, his subjects, and their possessions; the subjects were “included in” the person of the king, who represented them in dealing with other kingdoms, in a similar fashion to that by which the father of a family represented his wife, children, and servants before the law. The wife, children, and servants of a head of household were likewise “included in” his legal personality, in much in the same way as his possessions. And, in fact, the power of kings was always being likened to that of fathers; the only real difference (aside from the fact that in any conflict, the king was seen to have a higher claim) was that, unlike fathers, kings wielded the power of life and death over their subjects. These were the ultimate stakes of sovereignty. Certainly, it was the one power kings were least willing to delegate or share.[54] The ultimate proof that one has sovereign power over another human being is one’s ability to have them executed. In a similar fashion, one might argue, the ultimate proof of possession, of one’s personal dominium over a thing, is one’s ability to destroy it—and indeed this remains one of the key legal ways of defining dominium, as a property right, to this day. But there’s an obvious problem here. If one does destroy the object, one may have definitively proved that one owns it; but, as a result, one does not own it any more.

We end up, then, with what might seem a particularly perverse variation on Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, in which the actor, seeking some sort of impossible recognition of his absolute mastery of an inanimate object, can only achieve this recognition by destroying it. Still, I don’t really think this is a variation on the master/slave dilemma. I think a better case could probably be made that the dilemma described by Hegel actually derives from this. After all, the one thing least explained in Hegel’s account is where the necessity of conflict comes from (after all, there are ways to risk one’s life to impress another person that do not involve trying to murder them). The quest for recognition, in Hegel, does not lead to the destruction of property: but it does lead to a choice of either destroying the Other, or reducing the Other to property. Relations which are not based on property—or more precisely, on that very ambiguous synthesis between the two types of sovereignty—suddenly become impossible to imagine, and I think this is true because Hegel is starting from a model of possessive individualism.

At any rate, the paradox exists, and it is precisely here where the metaphor of “consumption” gains its appeal.[55] Because it is the perfect resolution of this paradox—or at least, about as perfect a resolution as one is going to get. When you eat something, you do indeed destroy it (as an autonomous entity), but at the same time, it remains “included in” you in the most material of senses.[56] Eating food, then, became the perfect idiom for talking about desire and gratification in a world in which everything, all human relations, were being re-imagined as questions of property.


What we have documented so far is a conception of human fulfillment as a form of destruction and incorporation; a reconception of human beings as eating machines, absorbing elements of the world around them, burning them up or spitting them out, in a never-ending pursuit of phantasms. Probably, in the final analysis, the only way to understand all this is, as authors like Bataille have suggested, in relation to some kind of sacrificial ideology. If one were to write a complete genealogy of the idea, I suspect, one would probably best begin with the anthropological and historical literature on animal sacrifice.

Certainly, much of that literature (e.g., Lienhardt 1964; Valeri 1985) is very suggestive: at least insofar as it tends to argue that such rituals are ultimately about the creation of transcendental images of desired states through the destruction of desirable goods—goods that were also, usually, living beings. It is the act of destruction, of killing the animal, burning the spirit money, or otherwise effacing the object, that purges that presumably permanent transcendental image from the profane, temporal, material element—for example, those parts of the animal’s flesh that can now be eaten. Only then can it end in an act of collective consumption, a feast. One might then go on to observe that Eurasian world religions from Zoroaster onwards (“Axial Age” religions as they’re often called) almost invariably seem to have arisen, in large part, in opposition to this sort of sacrificial ritual and all it represents. They were veritable anti-sacrificial ideologies. In practice, this could mean anything from utterly negating one classic form of animal sacrifice (as in Hinduism, where one was forbidden to kill cows) to inverting its logic (as in Christianity, where it was now God, as paschal lamb, who had sacrificed himself), or endless variations in between. Each tradition tended to maintain certain elements of the classic sacrificial scene for continued emphasis—the fire in Zoroastrianism, the incense in Confucianism, the altar in Christianity (Heesterman 1993)—each, significantly, was confronted in doing so with the need to develop some kind of philosophical understanding of human desire. The Medieval European one we have been exploring in this essay, however superficially, might be considered one particular variation, developed in dialogue between the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim intellectual cultures of the time;[57] a rather different, but in many ways more sophisticated, approach to the same existential problems developed in a parallel dialogue between Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism; or more interestingly, even, between different strains of Buddhism or, otherwise, within those traditions themselves.

Conclusions: But What About Consumerism?

What does all this imply about the current use of the term “consumption”? For one thing, I think it suggests we should think about how far we really want to extend the metaphor—since a metaphor is, after all, all this is. It makes perfect sense to talk about the “consumption” of fossil fuels. It is quite another thing to talk about the “consumption” of television programming—much though this has been the topic of endless books and essays. Why, exactly, are we calling this “consumption?” About the only reason I can see is that TV programming is created by people paid wages and salaries somewhere other than where viewers are watching it. Otherwise, there appears to be no reason at all. Programming is not even a commodity, since viewers don’t usually pay for it; it is not in any direct sense “consumed” by its viewers. It is hardly something one fantasizes about acquiring, and one cannot, in fact, acquire it. It is in no sense destroyed by use. Rather, we are dealing with a continual stream of potential fantasy material, some intended to market particular commodities, some not. Cultural studies scholars, and anthropologists writing in the same vein, tend to insist that these images are not simply passively absorbed by “consumers,” but actively interpreted and appropriated, in ways the producers would probably never have suspected, and employed as ways of fashioning identities—the “creative consumption” model again. But to how much TV watching does this really apply? Certainly, there’s some. There are people who organize much of their imaginative life around one particular show, Trekkies for instance, who participate in a subculture of fans who write stories or comic zines around their favorite characters, attend conventions, design costumes, and the like. But when a sixteen year old girl writes a short story about forbidden love between Kirk and Spock, this is hardly consumption any more; we are talking about people engaging in a complex community organized around forms of (relatively unalienated) production. Such behavior tends to be especially typical of young people who have a good deal of time on their hands, and a great deal of energy.[58] At the other extreme, we have the vast majority of TV viewing, which is by people who spend most of their waking hours engaged in extremely alienated forms of production—who work forty or fifty hours a week at a job that is likely as not mind-numbingly boring, extremely stressful, or both; commute; come home far too exhausted and emotionally drained to be able to engage in any of the activities they would consider truly rewarding, pleasurable or meaningful, but just plop down in from the of the tube because it’s the easiest thing to do. As some have noted (e.g. Lodziak 2002), those who analyze consumption as an autonomous domain of meaning-creation almost never take the effects of work into account.

In other words, when “creative consumption” is at its most creative, it’s not consumption; when it’s most obviously a form of consumption, it is not creative.

Above all, I think we should be careful about importing the political economy habit of seeing society as divided into two spheres, of production and consumption into cultural analysis (or at best three: production, consumption, and exchange.) Doing so almost inevitably forces us to view almost all forms of non-alienated production as “consumer behavior”:

Cooking, playing sports, gardening, DIY (Do-It-Yourself), home decoration, dancing and music-making are all examples of consumer activities which involve some participation, but they cannot of themselves transform the major invasion by commercial interest groups into consumption which has occurred since the 1950s (Bocock 1993: 51).

According to the logic of the quote above, if I bought some vegetables and prepared a gazpacho to share with some friends, that’s actually consumerism. In fact, it would be even if I grew the vegetables myself (presumably, because I bought the seeds). We are back to the teenagers with the rock band. Any production not for the market is treated as a form of consumption, which has the incredibly reactionary political effect of treating almost every form of unalienated experience we do engage in as somehow a gift granted us by the captains of industry.

How to think our way out of this box? No doubt there are many ways. This paper is meant more to raise issues, trace a history, and expose dilemmas, than to dictate solutions. Still, one or two suggestions might be in order. The obvious one is to treat consumption not as an analytical term but as an ideology to be investigated. Clearly, there are people in the world who do base key aspects of their identity around what they see as the destructive encompassment of manufactured products. Let us find out who these people really are, when they think of themselves this way and when they don’t, and how they relate to others who conceive their relations to the material world differently. If we wish to continue applying terms borrowed from political economy—as I have certainly done elsewhere (e.g., 2001, 2006)—it might be more enlightening to start looking at what we’ve been calling the “consumption” sphere rather as the sphere of the production of human beings, not just as labor power but as persons, internalized nexuses of meaningful social relations. After all, this is what social life is actually about: the production of people (of which the production of things is simply a subordinate moment), and it’s only the very unusual organization of capitalism that makes it even possible for us to imagine otherwise.

This is not to say that everything has to be considered either a form of production or of consumption (consider for example a softball game; it’s clearly neither), but it at least allows us to open up some neglected questions, such as that of alienated and nonalienated forms of labor, terms which have fallen somewhat into abeyance and therefore remain radically under-theorized. What exactly does engaging in nonalienated production actually mean? Such questions become all the more important when we start thinking about capitalist globalization and resistance. Rather than looking at people in Zambia or Brazil and saying “look! they are using consumption to construct identities!” (implying they are willingly, or perhaps unknowingly, submitting to the logic of neoliberal capitalism), perhaps we should consider that in many of the societies we study, the production of material products has always been subordinate to the mutual construction of human beings. What they are doing, at least in part, is simply insisting on continuing to act as if this were the case, even when using objects manufactured elsewhere. In other words, maybe it is the very opposite of acquiescence.

One thing, I think, we can certainly assert. Insofar as social life is and always has been mainly about the mutual construction of human beings, the ideology of consumption has been endlessly effective in helping us forget this. Most of all it does so by suggesting:

  1. that human desire is not essentially a matter of relations between people but of relations between individuals and phantasms;

  2. that our primary relation with other individuals is an endless struggle to establish our sovereignty, or autonomy, by incorporating and destroying aspects of the world around them;

  3. that for this reason any genuine relation with other people is problematic (the problem of “the Other”);

  4. that society can thus be seen as a gigantic engine of production and destruction in which the only significant human activity is either manufacturing things, or engaging in acts of ceremonial destruction so as to make way for more: a vision which, in fact, sidelines most things that real people actually do and, insofar as it is translated into actual economic behavior, is obviously unsustainable.

Even as anthropologists and other social theorists directly challenge this view of the world, the unreflective use—and indeed self-righteous propagation—of terms like “consumption” ends up completely undercutting their efforts and reproducing the very tacit ideological logic we would wish to call into question.


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From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org

(1961 - 2020)

Anarchist, Anthropologist, Occupy Movement Organizer, and Anti-Bullshit Jobs Activist

David Rolfe Graeber was an American anthropologist and anarchist activist. His influential work in economic anthropology, particularly his books Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Bullshit Jobs , and his leading role in the Occupy movement, earned him recognition as one of the foremost anthropologists and left-wing thinkers of his time. Born in New York to a working-class Jewish family, Graeber studied at Purchase College and the University of Chicago, where he conducted ethnographic research in Madagascar under Marshall Sahlins and obtained his doctorate in 1996. He was an assistant professor at Yale University from 1998 to 2005, when the university controversially decided not to renew his contract before he was eligible for tenure. Unable to secure another position in the United States, he entered an "academic exile" in England, where he was a lecturer and reader at Goldsmiths' College from 2008 to 2013, and a professor at the London School of Economic... (From: Wikipedia.org / TheGuardian.com.)


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