Shopping for Pleasure
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“Reading The Popular”. In this analysis, I will be examining the main points in this chapter and discussing Fiske’s explanation for including each one. I will also be examining counter arguments from other sources on his theories.
There are five distinctive sections within this chapter: ‘malls, power and resistance’, ‘consuming women’, commodities and women’, ‘conspicuous consumption’, and ‘progress and the new.’ I intend to look at each section separately, finally connecting the whole chapter at the end of my analysis.
The first section from this chapter is titled ‘Malls, Power and Resistance’. This section discusses shopping malls or “cathedrals of consumption” as described by the author, and the power struggle between the consumer and the distributor. As shown above, the author, in this section uses the metaphor of consumerism as a religion, the ‘icons of worship’ being the commodities. This seems a reasonable metaphor, the consumers as a congregation and the manufacturers or distributors being the ‘Authority on High’, however the author dislikes this metaphor, preferring to swap it for a metaphor of warfare later on in this section, when describing the tricks used by consumers to baffle and display pseudo-power over the authority of the malls.
Basically, this section is describing the power of the capitalists by means of the shopping mall and the tactics of the consumer to counter this. The tactics including window shopping, using the mall as a place to hang-out (consuming space in the mall, rather than commodities), and generally exploiting the mall for the use of its controlled climate for example, walking in bad weather and letting young children play in the warm. However, as Fiske points out, the owners of the shopping malls may even encourage the passive users in the hope that they will become ‘real economic consumers’, but they have no control over whether they will. Fiske describes this power struggle in malls as ” where the strategy of the powerful is most vulnerable to the tactical raids of the weak.”
In the next part of the text, ‘Consuming Women’, the author finds three two emphases: gender difference, (female gender and shopping versus male gender and success) and work versus leisure. These seem to be the main points within this section, with the gender issue being the principal issue. Fiske demonstrates this by the slogans in cards and shop windows and the different cultural visibility that the two sexes receive, for example for the masculine attributes are competitive and tough – public success, whereas the women’s attributes are (within the patriarchal society and concept of the ‘nuclear family’) ‘household managers’, and although are too expected to be successes this is within the confined and private space of home and family life. The work versus leisure theme is demonstrated by Fiske with the use of shopping as a leisure activity when it was formerly seen as household work.
This is also demonstrated within the article by Ferrier (1987): “The shoppingtown , with its carnival atmosphere, seems set to collapse the distinction between work and leisure.” Ferrier also notes that “Boundaries between public and private become ambiguous.” A principle point in this section that combines both gender difference and work versus leisure, is the empowerment that women can find within their side of the structured values within the patriarchal system and within this the ability to escape the structure itself. Also noted by the author is the use of ‘feminine tricks’ as demonstrated by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the 1850s, and which is described by the author as “the weak (i.e. women) …us(ing) the resources provided by the strong in their own interests, and to oppose the interests of those who provided the resources.”
The next point in this chapter is titled ‘Commodities and Women’ and describes how consumption offers a sense of control and means of coping with frustration at capitalist conditions of production. In this section the author reminds us that buying and ownership offers a sense of control and forms the main means of achieving this. ( Williamson : 1986) However ownership is not the only sense of control available to the consumer – the moment of choice is also an ’empowered moment.’ Fiske demonstrates this by including a paragraph describing a woman taking her daughter shopping and the daughter recalls the sense of power her mother felt over the shop assistant. De Certeau describes this as ‘tactical raids’; the empowerment felt by the girl’s mother was in the consumer versus distributor relationship.
However, the author feels that there can be another explanation: the girl’s mother was ‘traditionally middle-class’, so her actions could be explained as mistress-servant relationship, which is seen as less politically acceptable than ‘tactical raids’ upon the system. Fiske suggests that in light of this “production may be essentially proletarian and consumption bourgeois.” On the other hand, however “consumption is more than a bourgeois act” and appears to strengthen rather than menace the values of the bourgeois and forges “social allegiances.” The point is made that shopping itself can’t be radical as commodities are produced by the capitalists, so can’t as a product be radical, but the way they are consumed as items can be.
Stedman-Jones (1982) points out that commodities are used by the proletarians in such ways. Articles for display rather than time-saving devices were preferred by the masses if money was left over from necessities. The need to display was seen as a need for self esteem which was denied by conditions of production, but which can be met by consumption. Sue Bowden and Avner Offer ( ‘Household appliances and the use of time: the United States and Britain since the 1920’s) support this in their study of goods consumed in households through the last eighty years. This can be explained in that the working class had different values of ‘respectability’ than the bourgeois and in basic terms, possessions equalled respectability. This value of respectability is again shown in that the meanings of commodities is in the way that they are consumed, and the amount of money available. Gans (1962) in his study of Bostonian Italians found that the “display of self” through clothes was as common as among other working class groups, that the working class made cultural values out of what commodities were to be had and that self-display was more important than thrift.
Consumption is often the desire for control rather than ownership and this concludes the problem facing the left, which is not how to turn people away from consumerism, but is how to find new ways this desire could be satisfied. However, the left does not help its own cause by ignoring the ‘tricks’ and ‘arts of the working man ( or indeed women) against the system. To understand the practices used everyday by these people, it is important to acknowledge all views and standpoints to get a view of consumerism as a whole. This is a problem with many studies of this type, too often have they ignored or disvalued certain elements of the system and have unknowingly disvalued and biased their own studies.
The last section of ‘Shopping for Pleasure’ is termed ‘Progress and the New’. This chapter basically looks at newness as a reason for the desire of commodities. It describes how shopping malls emphasis newness and the general attractiveness of new commodities. Fiske describes newness as “an invitation to the future”, something which can be traced back to the economic, political and moral domains of post-Renaissance Christian capitalist democracies, who see time as being progress, continually moving forward and therefore entry to improvement and development. However, this sense of pleasure in progress is not equally available to all, it’s most naturally achieved by the mature, white, middle class male, and progressively less available the further social groups are centred from the norm, yet the same ideology of progress is the same to both groups.
Fiske suggests that there is an ‘inverse relationship’ between job success and desire of ‘newness’. This idea is strengthened by Chodorow (1978) in her study of job difference between men and women and the desire for newness. However, Chodorow, emphasised gender too strongly and neglected class, age and race differences, which leads to a small amount of bias within her study, even though at first reading it appears to have a high ecological validity. However, in a class study by Chambers (1986), it seems to support the basic theory of Chodorow in that job success parallels desire for new commodities. this is demonstrated by youth subcultures, who, denied ‘middle-class’ jobs due to social position use style and fashion as a source pleasure and a means of “establishing themselves in a controlling rather than dependent relationship to the social order.”
In this summary of ‘Reading the popular’, John Fiske demonstrates the need for commodities we have, not necessarily survival needs, but simply a desire for commodities, women and the working class particularly. It seems, through the evidence shown that the most considerable desire for commodities in general comes from those who are denied things, whether it be jobs, money or even sex equality.