A few posts in the past few months have touched on the dilemma of those seeking a post-consumerist way of living. In response to a piece Ed referenced I explored a little of the difficulty of breaking free of consumerism’s more insidious traits without simply slipping into an identity simply defined by a different set of consumerist choices, and in response to Thomas Hine’s book “I Want That”, I talked of how a phenomenon he warned could similarly be a more minimalist consumerism might also be an example of a more conscious way of living.
Consumerism can be a very easy target but escaping it is one of the hardest tasks of modern western existence. In reality, those of us who dislike much of what consumerism compels in us are probably best off not trying to escape it in a pure sense, but would be better to look at how to both surpass and subvert it. That’s something Adbusters has blazed a trail in. Following in the wake of pop-art, their use of consumer culture’s own symbols to undermine many of its presuppositions has been an inspiration to many. Much of the work they profile openly acknowledges the debt it owes to the brandmakers and marketers, it is steeped in their language, but it strains at the rules that normally define that language. I’ve always liked the term ‘culture jamming.’
As profiled in this piece on Pat Kane’s The Play Ethic blog, that aesthetic is increasingly broadly felt: the theme of O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology Conference a couple of months back was Remix Culture; mashups are undeniably on the rise; and (thanks to a tip-off from the Creative Commons blog) I’ve just had the chance to download a fan-made Star Wars film that Slate indicates is better than the official prequels.
Pat Kane drew his inspiration from this post by Finnish blogger Jyri which sets out to define the concept of “Own Logo” as the next step from Naomi Klein’s blistering critique “No Logo.” Rather than accept the branding imposed by a given corporation, “consumers” are increasingly customising the products they have purchased, and The Long Tail is coming into play as new technology allows more and more of us to seek out minority providers and mix-and-match our own ‘brand.’
In a sense, this has always been the way of things. Most of us have at one time or another ‘personalised’ purchased items, and very few of us purchase exclusively high-profile brands from high-profile retailers throughout our lives. Simply choosing which two big-brand items of clothing to combine is, in a sense, a form of ‘own logo.’ But at the same time, it does seem something new is emerging. Mashups, for example, are both a natural progression from the use of samples in hip-hop, but also far more explicit in their use of their predecessors. It’s a mirror of the Alternative Worship approach of remixing past church aesthetics with modern concepts in a highly self-conscious manner.
As the article Ed linked to indicates, it would be very easy to slip from such a customisation culture into a ‘cottage industry consumerism.’ For many of us that would be preferable, since individually those cottage industries have less power over advertising and retailing and diversity is not under so much threat as from their multinational alternatives, but it seems that while an analysis of ‘remix culture’, ‘the long tail’, and such concepts is an important step in finding “what’s next,” they open nearly as many questions as they answer.
What local community, so important for both environmental sustainability and personal contact, looks like in a world where cottage industry is delocalised, is a perennial question. Beyond that, how do we juggle these ideas with already busy lifestyles and the dizzying array of choices we will be offered? How do we ensure that this does not simply become another rich/poor divide (whether the wealth is in time or resources)? And when so much discussion of these concepts is about ‘individual’ branding and identity, what does a post-consumerist conception of group identity look like?