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Monday, September 08, 2008

Each household is constructing a social cosmology of things, values and relationships

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I buy therefore I am By Jonathan Birchall FT: September 5 2008 19:19

In Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? Bauman, a former communist, argues that we would be better off altogether if we could control our need for “stuff”. Society promotes the act of shopping as an “appeal to forever-elusive happiness”, he argues. This is accompanied by a readiness to “chuck away” everything, as we are stimulated by the market to desperately reinvent ourselves in what he has dubbed “liquid-modernity”.
“What the denizens of the liquid-modern world quickly find out is that nothing in the world is bound to last, let alone last forever,” he writes. “Everything is born with a brand of imminent death and emerges from the production line with a use-by date printed or presumed.”
Bauman’s discursive essays touch on the themes of his writing over the past 20 years and ranges far beyond shopping. Bauman has long argued that the evils of our world – he has focused particularly on the Holocaust – aren’t a reversion to pre-modern primitive values but are enabled by modern technology and social structures.
In these essays he argues that our readiness to throw away the objects that we buy extends also to our readiness to throw away, or get rid of, “strangers” too – migrant workers or immigrants or terrorist suspects, for example – whose humanity we do not recognise. “It seems all things, born or made, human or not, are until-further-notice and dispensable,” he writes.
Now in his eighties, Bauman portrays the book as a non-academic “report from the battlefield” of modern life. Unfortunately, it often reads as if he omitted to decode it for the troops out there in the trenches.
Even for those of us not familiar with the arguments of Habermas, Levinas, Arendt, Husserl and scores of lesser-known thinkers he frequently cites, it is clear that Bauman would have little time for BzzAgents.

Just when all seems lost between the hard theory of the sociologist and the banality of the marketer, along comes Daniel Miller, a British anthropologist. Miller’s book The Comfort of Things provides a wonderful and unusual antidote to the fear that humanity and individuality is losing its battle with modern consumerism. In his book, even the most trivial product of consumerism can be rendered almost magical by its owners.
Miller’s traditional anthropological field work on ceramics in India and household possessions in the Caribbean led him to ponder people’s relationships with “things” in the developing field of “material culture” studies. In The Comfort of Things, he has stepped out of academia to explore the complex meanings of what people do, or don’t, own in 30 households on a street in south London.
In this “typical” London street, no one speaks much to each other or knows much about anyone else. He sees it as a world of individual household cultures, including some that are burdened by suffering, loneliness and grief. “For me, this street is New Guinea and every household in this book is a tribe,” he writes.
But is this not the social fragmentation of modernity that Zygmunt Bauman laments? Not so, Miller would presumably reassure us, in a book with a very British focus on the empirical.
Consider the mother who uses McDonald’s Happy Meals and their associated free toys to please her children – because her own parents always denied her any indulgence. Or the possessions of the remarkable single mother who became a professional wrestler and nightclub bouncer, and who now teaches social workers, but responds to stress in her own life by moving her front room furniture about.
Each household, Miller argues, is constructing a social cosmology of things, values and relationships that are full of meaning and that are often linked to those we know and love – only the most bleak confront the loneliness of true individuality.
Particularly appalling is the portrait that starts the book, entitled “Empty”: an old man’s house is devoid of the objects, photographs and paraphernalia that surround most of us. George, the child of domineering parents, now seems to be a man “waiting for his time on earth to be over, but who at the age of 76 had never yet seen his life actually begin. And, worse still, he knew it.” ...

Bauman might take some comfort that amid the brands and a babble of marketing, we still pursue the somewhat original business of being human, each in our own ways. Jonathan Birchall is the FT’s US consumer industries correspondent Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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