consumerism

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     During my research on the dystopian aspects of consumerism, I came across many sources with original and creative ideas in directions that I’ve never thought about. The book America at the Mall: The Cultural Role of a Retail Utopia by Lisa Scharoun is a good example. The book examines the origin and development of shopping malls in the U.S. throughout history, analyzes the influence on different populations, especially seniors and the youth, brought by the malls, and outlines a possible future for malls based on the recent decline in popularity. Chapter 4, titled “The Mall and Religion”, is especially worth noting because it inspects malls, a secular place, from a religious perspective as the temple of consumerism, from which Scharoun derives original conclusions on people’s belief and behavior.

In this chapter, Scharoun first claims that consumerism is a new form of religion. Consumerism is compared to a traditional religion, Christianity: the analogy indicates that consumerism promotes acquiring material as the ultimate goal of life, similar to Christianity’s life after death; malls are the “sacred places” that embody the religious symbol of consumerism, which people can experience through the “ritual” of shopping, not unlike churches and masses in Christianity. She then uses other’s research and quote demonstrating that “consumerism has surpassed all other belief systems” around the world to prove her point.

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“Akasya Acıbadem Shopping Mall, Acıbadem, Istanbul.” 15 Best Shopping Malls in Istanbul.

Next, she further portrays the mall as a temple by noting its architectural features. The atrium, the most conspicuous part of a mall, for example, is often circular, which symbolizes perfection and are also present in religious symbols as well as churches. Water fountain is usually found in the atrium, too, because water is a strong religious symbol associated with purity and sublimation. Such design appeal to people’s spiritual pursuit, shaping them to view consumerism as sacred. However, Scharoun then points out the difference in consumerism and traditional religions lies in that consumerism corrodes morality and community values promoted by most religions.

By quoting many scholars, from Adam Smith to David Loy, Scharoun demonstrates that consumerism eliminates public life and direct people to engage in socially costly behaviors. Finally, it is shown from a survey that most people now choose to “worship at the ‘temple of consumerism’” rather than go to churches, which points to consumerism and malls as a powerful and dangerous force.

The arguments and evidence provided by this chapter is unique in its viewpoint. The religious and spiritual impact of consumerism is seldomly considered but well interpreted by Scharoun, and it may complement other aspects to allow people to evaluate consumerism and shopping behavior more thoroughly. Though it is centered on consumerism, the analysis on religion and architecture may prove valuable to Catherine in her paper “The Cult of Religion in Perfect Ruin and Real-Life Dystopias” as well as Sydney in her paper “Architecture: The Implications of Dystopian Architecture.” As Catherine focused more on individual worship as a religion, this might lead her to think about worshipping values promoted by a dystopia and how a simple idea may be constructed as a religion by the people with power. And the analogy of malls and churches may help Sydney to consider the spiritual and even religious functions of architectures in dystopia. I hope such a useful source can be read by more people and add to their research findings.

As I continued digging into various resources for my initial research question “do people believe that consumerism can lead to dystopia?”, I now have an answer: yes, consumerism is a dangerous and strong force that can transform a capitalist society into dystopia. The evidence I found can be categorized into three divisions: the environmental, social and political impact of consumerism. Considering the limited scope of this research project, I will focus only on the social aspect, therefore raising a more specific question: how can consumerism cause a dystopia to form from a social perspective?

I will address the question from three levels of social analysis: from the most micro level—how consumerism affect individuals in a society, to the ways in which people interact, finally to large scale socio-economic classes that comprise the whole society. Details from the dystopian society in M. T. Anderson’s Feed corresponding to each level of society will be presented and parallels will be drawn to present capitalist societies using sociological analysis.

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BenHeine. “Consumerism.” Consumerism by BenHeine on DeviantArt.

On the level of individuals, consumption is addictive. In a consumerist society where consumption is promoted as the foremost necessity, consuming easily becomes an impulsive behavior as individuals are never satisfied with what they already own. This turns into a vicious cycle of personal insecurity and consumption, which likely gives rise to mental problems and anti-social behavior. When using social media to show off the products one buys, individuals are also branding and selling themselves as commodities. Such trading of personal identity defined by consumer goods homogenizes people and culture, thus dehumanizing people by forcing them to lose their true identity and uniqueness and shaping them into a uniform and supposedly ideal “one”.

In evaluating interpersonal interactions in a consumeristic society, such connections are severely undermined. In such a society where instant gratification and interest of self are valued, people participate less and less in public life and community values are corroded. Although people tend to socialize more through social media or entertainment activities, such as parties, they approach others with a utilitarian view, creating shallow relationships, which leads to increasing relational crisis in families and between “friends.” With businesses targeting consumers’ emotions in advertisements, people become more driven by emotion rather than logic. Such lack of rationale is also detrimental to personal relations.

From the highest level, gap between social classes are enlarged and the whole society easily turns into a power system. From basic economic analysis, it is fairly straightforward to conclude that consumerism causes accumulation of wealth in the upper class while exploiting cheap labor from lower class.  Such rich-poor disparity only increases with time, leading to complete division of people, which is usually one of the basis of dystopia. Another characteristic of highly developed free market economies is the concentration of power, which ultimately turns into authoritarianism. As it may be counterintuitive to imagine how free economies, “utopia of freedom”, can turn into authoritarian societies (typical of dystopia), I am confident that you will find the reasoning very logical and convincing as it will be presented in my research paper “Evolution of Consumeristic Society to Dystopia——A Sociological Analysis.”

 

As all literary works aim to make an argument to persuade the readers, dystopian literature are distinct from all other genres in that it displays a devastating state of society where the problems are magnified infinitely to an unrealistic extent. In this hyperbolic form, dystopia serve as a warning to its readers, stimulating them to initiate certain changes in the society to prevent its fall to dystopia. Dystopian literature thus appears to me as an extreme approach through which the authors let out their cry against certain aspects of contemporary society. But, is it true that all dystopian authors feel that strongly about the social problems, that is, do they really believe that the problems can cause dystopia to form as depicted?Image result for feed mt anderson

This question came to me when I finished M.T. Anderson’s Feed and his own afterword “On Feed.” (Since Feed is specifically set in the US, the following analysis will be focused on the US exclusively.) The US has long been a capitalistic society where free economy and consumerism dominate. It has already gone through the Jazz Age, the hyper-materialistic stage of consumerism, and the substance-short period of the Great Depression. It has given birth to numerous new technologies and huge companies, from Coca-Cola to Apple. With environmental issue brought into focus since the 1960s, most people are able to view consumerism critically, acknowledging material as necessary but not the most important element of life. So does Anderson really fear that consumerism can lead us to such a degraded environment and brainless society in Feed?

In the afterword, I found Anderson very honest about his views: “For me, the key to the discomfort — and the exploration — is how much I love some of it [the hyper-marketed world in Feed], how much I still do want to be slick like the people on the tube, beautiful, laughing, surrounded by friends…It is the anguish of indecision that animates it.” I have seldom seen authors thoroughly explaining their own thoughts on the themes of their work, and even fewer (none, I think, actually) presenting a conflict and their own mental struggle. Feed is a very unique work in that it does not advocate completely against consumerism, the deadly cause of the dystopia, but rather inflates its negative impacts to the greatest extent and simultaneously presents some of its fascinating features, leaving an open question to its readers: since we need a free market, how can we act as well-informed, intelligent and conscientious consumers that help preserve both the society and the natural environment?

I have, therefore, decided to research dystopian authors’ view about the social problem presented in their work through the lens of consumerism in dystopia. Through analyzing the ways in which the deadly flaws are presented and studies on the social impacts of consumerism, I will try to answer to question “do people really believe that consumerism is dangerous enough to lead to dystopia?” from a sociology perspective.

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“Consumerist priorities.” Consumerism – Lessons – TES Teach.