By Simon J. Burns

This thesis is presented by Simon Burns, S#295377 to the School of Social and Political Sciences in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Arts (Honours), in the field of Anthropology, in the School of Social and Political Sciences, Faculty of Arts, The University of Melbourne Supervisor: Dr Monica Minnegal Date: October 15th, 2012 Word Count: 16,500 (16,920 in body text minus approx. 420 words of references in text), excluding acknowledgements, footnotes, sources and appendices.

Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


School of Social and Political Sciences


STUDENT I hereby declare that this thesis comprises my own original work and does not exceed 15,000 words, exclusive of footnotes, bibliography and appendices.

Simon J. Burns

SUPERVISOR I hereby declare that I have approved this thesis for submission.

Dr Monica Minnegal

Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


Table of Contents
Acknowledgements.............................................................................................................. 4

Chapter 1 - Introduction .............................................................................................5
Why Insatiability and Heteronomy Matter ...................................................................... 6 Methodology....................................................................................................................... 15 Emergent Conceptual Framework .................................................................................. 18

Chapter 2 Anticipation and Newness.......................................................................26
Representation Consilience in Imagination......................................................................... 27 The Conflation of Ersatz and Original Use-Value .............................................................. 36 Resources for imagination................................................................................................... 42

Chapter 3 – Realisation and Disappointment .........................................................47
Realisation Dissonance........................................................................................................ 47 Essentially insatiable desires to consume, or ersatz use-value............................................ 48 Cyclical Consumption and the Concretisation of dissonance ............................................. 57

Chapter 4 - Conclusion..............................................................................................64
Sources .................................................................................................................................... 67

Appendix A – Conceptual Model of Abstract/Concrete in representations ........................ 71 Appendix B – Conceptual Model of Realisation Dissonance ............................................. 73

Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


I convey my sincere thanks to my housemates Nathan, Chris and Lucie, who tolerated my transformation of the kitchen table into a writing desk. Thank you to friends and colleagues who kept me company in the long stretches with shared meals and endless coffees: Nicholas Duncan-Ross, Kelly Stewart, Dawn Wells and Suki Dorras-Walker. Lastly, thank you to readers Ben Glasson, Emily Morrison and Sophie Reid, I extend my sincere thanks and convey my hope to return the favour in the near future. This thesis could not have been written without the generous, thoughtful comments of my supervisor Dr. Monica Minnegal, nor, for that matter, her generous administrations of coffee. Thank you for your engagement with the project, and your valuable encouragement.

Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


He had woken from a dream of the bike. The whole mountain, covered with downhill mountain bikes like sprinkles on a cake. They’d gone all the way to the horizon, standing up though there was not a rider in sight. He’d heard the springs on their fat suspension bobbing, smooth and slick, of their own accord. A sharp thrill of excitement had settled in his belly as he thought about his bike sitting in the shop, waiting for him. He’d ridden with his brother up in the You Yangs the week past, right down the sides of mountains. Flat-stick, white knuckles, twigs brushing his face, they’d been like wild animals in human form, running in a pack. With the sunrise hitting his cheek up there, everything else was a world away. The bike was pristine on the day he rolled out of the shop on it. He felt like he could do anything. He didn’t think about work then, that greasy smelly feeling on his fingers that just seemed to stick to him. He didn’t think about that next shift, only twelve hours away. He’d finally found a hobby that he could stick with, and the air around him felt thick with possibility. The new bike distracted him at work in the restaurant, almost like it was sitting there in the corner of the kitchen, begging to be ridden. In his head he replayed the videos of the pros riding his bike, and he didn’t know how much it was them riding and how much it was him. He burned the toast. On his day off, he’d gotten himself organized, packed the bike in the car, driven out and ridden. It was like before, and so much more, and yet… Something changed. It wasn’t boring, it’s not like it lost its appeal. But in the next few weeks he’d missed a few chances. He’d meant to go, it was just that he’d been so tired and by the time he’d woken up the drive was two hours and he wouldn’t have much time to ride anyway. He’d stopped thinking about the bike much at work, and when he did he felt a pang of doubt instead of a thrill in his belly. The little white food order slips just kept coming through the window and piling up in messy stacks, just like the bills on the little table inside his front door. Maybe he didn’t have the time or energy for this. The day of his housemate’s birthday party he’d moved the bike from its spot under the back patio and into the shed to make room for the barbecue. He’d laid it against the old workbench and noticed the dust floating in the sunbeams. A little finger of regret touched the back of his throat, but he swallowed it and went back to the party. For a year the dust settled on the bike without a finger to touch it. He’d hesitated when he put it up for sale, but he’d wiped off the dust and eventually watched it ride out of his driveway, feeling the slick plastic dollars in his hands. To be continued…
Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


Standing outside our protagonist’s life looking in, one can perhaps see past an oft-made assumption. Consumption, or the purchasing of objects from the economy and its associated activities, does not always bring satisfaction. Indeed, the intense longings that people sometimes experience in anticipation of the purchase of objects can be not just dissatisfying, but disappointing and even deceptive. How can one’s perception of an object prove to be so inaccurate that it turns from gold to mud in the space of a few days or even a few minutes? The ‘sovereign consumer’ in our protagonist is either asleep at the wheel, gripped by his desires or suffering from a masochistic streak. In this paper I search for aspects of consumption that are not in people’s best interests, in accounts of experience where some aspect of an object’s spoken or unspoken promise is experienced as broken and a dissonance is consumed in its place. I argue for an approach to consumption that avoids the trap of simply accepting or rejecting heteronomy or autonomy 1 , examining accounts of experiences of dissatisfied consumption as grounds for a productive synthesis of these approaches. This utilises data gathered from semi-structured interviews with a small but various sample of people around Melbourne who were disposing of once intensely wanted objects at garage sales.

The ship of consumption studies sails in troubled waters. It must traverse a narrow straight with a sea monster called Scylla on one edge and a whirlpool

I define these terms in opposition as the subjection to, or freedom from, laws or constraints external to a person or people. 2 Dissatisfaction I define as an aspect of the process of consumption where anticipated or expected outcomes fail to emerge. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 6

called Charybdis on the other (Lofgren 1994: 51). If the ship tries too hard to avoid one it is endangered by the other. Charybdis represents what I refer to as critical approaches to consumption. These is in the tradition of the Frankfurt School and Western Marxism more generally. These tend to focus on forces of manipulation that impel people to consume against their own best interests in order to fuel capitalist growth. Advertising plays a key role, using “hypnoid methods… to propagandise us” (Fromm 2006 [1976]: 152). Marcuse (1991[1964]: 7) emphasises the way in which consumption acts as a form of control where “false needs” to “consume in accordance with the advertisements” function as a form of repression and control. Campbell (1987: 46) characterises this approach to advertising as a hypodermic model where passive people are injected with needs by outside forces. Adorno analyses the effects of the commodity form and its fetishism on consumption, through the notion of ersatz use-value. Featherstone (1991: 14) summarises: "once the dominance of exchange-value has managed to obliterate the memory of the original use-value of goods, the commodity becomes free to take up a secondary or ersatz use-value. Commodities hence become free to take on a wide range of cultural associations and illusions. Advertising in particular is able to exploit this and attach images of romance, exotica, desire, beauty, fulfilment, communality, scientific progress and the good life to mundane consumer goods such as soap, washing machines, motor cars and alcoholic drinks".3 In 1976 Erich Fromm made the observation that people in the Western world were “beginning to discover that having much does not create well-being” (2006 [1976]: 161). He called for ‘sane consumption’ that had use instead of profit as its end (2006 [1976]: 144). More recently, Bauman (2007: 28) has written of

This is in line with Marx’s (1964) discussion of Fetishism as “the religion of sensuous desire”. In this “religion”, the “fantasy arising from desire deceives the fetish-worshipper into believing that an ‘inanimate object’ will give up its natural character in order to comply with his desires. Hence the crude desire of the fetish-worshipper smashes the fetish when it ceases to be its most obedient servant". Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 7

the alienation of wants, desires and longings that occurs in the consumer society, in similar fashion to the alienation of labour in the producer society. The resulting perpetual dissatisfaction fuels ever more consumption, driving people to purchase at a volume that outstrips natural needs and at a pace that exceeds the physical durability of objects (Bauman 1998: 25). 4 These accounts do not commonly draw on empirical evidence, but often argue in the style of abstract ‘ideal types’ (2007: 23). On the other side of the straight is the sea monster, Scylla. This represents what I refer to broadly as celebratory approaches to consumption. This literature is associated with a ‘cultural turn’ in some social thought where culture in language and the symbolic, belief and attitudes came to be viewed more “as a dynamic product of everyday life, not the reflex expression of a capitalist mode of production or the concoction of advertising” (Humphery 2009: 117). This constituted a turn away from mass culture theories such as those described above. Celebratory approaches render consumption as liberated, active, creative and critical, stressing processes of appropriation where people are able to construct the meaning of consumer objects according to their own needs (eg Hebdige 1979, Miller 1988, Friedman 1994). Consumption in this account becomes “another production” (DeCerteau1988: xii). Consumption, far from being a force which alienates people’s wants longings and desires, is rendered as the means by which people resist alienation in “the vast scale and scope of the market, the state and science” (Miller 2012: 56).

I use the term ‘object’ or ‘consumer object’ in place of ‘good’ to avoid the value judgement or assumption that all the things that people buy from the economy are in fact ‘good’. People may use them to do good things, but that does not mean that goodness inheres in them. To term consumer objects ‘goods’ attributes to the object itself the goodness of the use of an object’s affordances. That such an attribution comes to define terms is a strong indication of the construction of fetishism and ersatz concrete use-value (described below) in language. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 8

Advertisers are pushed to the sidelines in celebratory approaches. For some, advertising does not affect the overall demand for consumer objects, and companies conduct it not because it is proven to work, but because their competitors do it (e.g. Miller 2012: 109-114). This is connected to the assertion that producers are less able to manage the meanings of their products in the information age because people have access to an unprecedented amount of uncontrolled information (Lash & Urry 1994: 2). The hypodermic model of advertising is thrown out in favour of what could be called the ‘cake icing tube approach’, where advertising impotently sweetens the cake of consumption without penetrating into its substance. Both the critical and the celebratory approaches have their morality tale: for Miller, critical approaches are a product of their authors’ desires to demonstrate their own personal characteristics and morality (e.g. 2001, 2012:107). Critical approaches, particularly those of the Frankfurt School, are relentlessly vilified as puritanical and elitist, dismissive of the pleasures of real people (Graeber 2011: 501ff.), perhaps committing that characteristic intellectual delusion that ‘ordinary mortals’ are stupid (Thompson 1978: 199). Celebratory approaches within anthropology contain a ‘we used to be naïve Marxists’ narrative (Graeber 2011: 490): anthropologists used to subscribe to critical approaches to consumption, despite their simplistic characterisation of consumption as a reflex of production. They have now overcome this puritanical elitism5 in favour of a full appreciation of the fact that real people find most of their pleasures in consumption (2011: 490). This narrative can serve to accommodate graduate students to settled lives in

Graeber defends Adorno and Horkheimer on this point, noting that they were “German Jews who witnessed the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany and were keenly aware that fascism was one of the first political movements to make full use of modern marketing techniques” (2011: 501). This makes their puritanism and elitism more understandable, he argues. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 9

the consumer society, to overcome their adolescent revulsion at consumer culture, and to emphasise their distance from the popular discourse of anti-consumerism (2011: 501). There is a small body of literature on the topic of insatiable consumption, falling somewhere between the celebratory and critical approaches. Prominent among these accounts is the historical sociological work of Colin Campbell, who speaks of insatiable consumption that “arises out of a basic inexhaustibility of wants themselves, which forever arise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of their predecessors. Hence no sooner \ is one satisfied than another is waiting in line clamouring to be satisfied… rarely can an inhabitant of modern society, no matter how privileged or wealthy, declare that there is nothing that they want. That this should be is a matter of wonder” (1987: 37) Campbell associates this with a never-ending but pleasant longing, or the desire for an ‘unknown’ object (1987: 87). This is part of the romantic daydreaming and imagination that generates images of fantastical unattainable states in novel consumer objects. Anthropologist Grant McCracken (1990: 104) addresses insatiable consumption in his theory of 'displaced meaning', where consumer objects or ‘goods’ symbolise the impossible states of being that people want in their lives. A parallel can be drawn here betweem this meaning and Campbell’s unknown object, mentioned above. McCracken speaks of the "pressing problem" of the unbridgeable gap between the real and the ideal with which people must deal in order avoid naive optimism or hopeless cynicism (1990: 105). They do this by taking unattainable meanings from the realm of lived experience and investing them in consumer objects where they are protected by their removal in the symbolic relationship. These objects then act as 'bridges' to this meaning, allowing
Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


people to access it but never to realise it. When a particular object does not fulfil the meaning that people have associated with it they do not realise the unattainability of the meaning but rather blame the object and trade up to the next one. An example is the rose covered cottage that symbolises an entire way of life – livelihood, spouse and domestic arrangement (1990: 110). One may dream about such a house, but upon finally obtaining it, realise that it does not act as a fix for their lives. Another object may then be found for the displacement of meaning – a better house, or perhaps a caravan. Belk Ger and Askegaard (2003) conducted multi-sited research into people’s accounts of the experience of desire, with a general though somewhat inconsistent focus on consumption. They discuss discourses of consumerism and advertising as determinative factors in desires to consume, but do not link them explicitly with their participants’ accounts. Agency is placed in objects and individuals with concepts like self-seduction and the self-stimulation of desire. They characterise this insatiable desire as pleasant, despite its subjection to addiction and loss of control (2003: 334). The potentially unpleasant experience of insatiable consumption is not covered in any of these accounts. Such unpleasant experience does not necessarily point to heteronomy, but it suggests it insofar as people tend not to choose, in their own interests, that which is unpleasant. Though both of these authors acknowledge insatiable consumption as an important feature of Western consumerism, they do not address the links between the structuring aspect and individual experience, nor the social dynamics behind that heteronomy, with Campbell placing a great deal of agency in individual imagination and McCracken somewhat naturalising meaning displacement as a ”source of historical
Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


transformation” (1990: 108) rather than a possible outcome of it. Questions of poverty and inequality, which are presumably factors in the experience of insatiable consumption, also receive little consideration. Recently there have been calls for the ‘judgement’ of consumer culture as well as just analysis, particularly in light of environmental concerns. Climate change is a “super wicked problem” 6 (Levin et al. 2007) with potentially catastrophic global consequences (IPCC 2007), and consumption is a major contributor to the process (Princen, Maniates & Conca 2002: 6, Wilk 2009: 266). The problem is pressed even harder by the arguably legitimate demands of people in the third world for equality of consumption with affluent people in the West. If the consumption patterns were such that 1.3 billion Chinese produced Carbon Dioxide emissions equal to those of North Americans, “the rate of climate change would increase dramatically” (Wilk 2009: 266). In this context, a questioning of these lifestyles is urgent.7 A general reduction in consumption may be necessary in this context:8 a process of dis-consumption (to borrow a term from Carrier and Heyman [1997: 356]). Miller (2012:159) points out that moral entreaties for people to reduce their


‘Super wicked problems’ differ in their definition from mere ‘wicked problems’ in four respects: “time is running out; the central authority needed to address them is weak or non-existent; those who cause the problem also seek to create a solution; and hyperbolic discounting occurs that pushes responses into the future when immediate actions are required to set in train longer-term policy solutions (Levin et al. 2007: 3). 7 There is a questioning in developing countries as to the degree to which they wish to emulate the affluent lifestyles of the West: Mayor of Bogota Gustavo Petro, for instance, has been quoted as saying that “a developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation”. 8 See Gouldson and Sullivan (2012) for a recent overview of Ecological Modernisation or what could be called ‘have your cake and eat it too’ theory, which suggests that improvements in technology can render ‘green’ consumption, and capitalism more generally. For less optimistic accounts, which suggest that piecemeal changes in consumption such as those suggested by Miller (2012:176) may be akin to bailing a punctured ship with a bucket, see Ekins and Speck (2011: 358), Jackson (2009:67) and Sanne (2002). Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 12

consumption in the ‘warm’ realm of their “nearest and dearest” seem ‘cold’, and are difficult to heed. This need not be the case. Tim Jackson (2005) argues that consumption is not necessarily “good for us”, or for our nearest and dearest. He surveys the literature on the environmental, psychological and social damage associated with consumption, including critical approaches outlined above. He argues that there is a ‘double dividend’ in sustainable consumption: people can “live better by consuming less and reduce our impact on the environment in the process” (2005: 19). I refer to the process that can yield this ‘double dividend’ as ‘beneficial dis-consumption’. The judgement of cultures of consumption called for (Humphery 2009: 118) by consumption’s pressing environmental impacts, however, is a notoriously difficult if not impossible and distasteful endeavour. Such judgement can also lead to inaccuracy, as exemplified by the ‘it’s okay they’ve appropriated it’ fallacy often committed by celebratory approaches. The process at work here could be called ‘morality-washing’: concerns based in morality come to replace or obscure critique or analysis. This is evident in Miller (2012) where a discussion of the consequences and causal factors of consumption are often obscured or replaced by concerns which, though legitimate, are based in morality: autonomy (2013: 137), sociality (2012: 184), creativity (2012: 108) and authenticity (2012: 62) are all examples. Conversely, consumption must not be judged as ‘bad’ merely because it is determined in part by discourse, ideology or other structures. One such morality tale is that commoditisation necessarily detracts from human agency. This can be seen in Princen Maniates and Conca (2002: 3) definition of the term, where commodities ‘substitute’ for human creativity and relationship.9


The concept of commoditisation is more thoroughly defined and discussed in Chapter three. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


This heteronomy in and of itself is not necessarily ‘bad’, but rather a particular type of the heteronomy that is a part of any social life, and its causes and consequences must be questioned in this light. If ecological perspectives demand judgement, it should be of the environmental impacts of consumption rather than the culture around it. In such a ‘court’ let social science be the expert witness who says, in line with Miller (2012: 159) “I’m afraid it’s not that easy, people do not simply consume for immoral reasons”, and who uses this insight to make suggestions for beneficial dis-consumption. There is a need for a synthesis between critical and celebratory approaches – a bringing together of Scylla and Charybdis. The aim to create “an autonomous space where we could start to think about consumption in and of itself” (e.g. Miller 2012: 90) is important, but without a corresponding and overlapping heteronomous space where we can think about consumption as it is influenced by the structures of society, it is severely lacking. Critical approaches, such as those of the Frankfurt school, must be preserved if only to be “eternally transcended” (Graeber 2011: 501). These must be juxtaposed with people’s experiences (Miller 2001) in those aspects of their lives that, by choice or otherwise, involve consumption. Such examination of experience is absent from critical approaches and with the notable exception of Belk Ger and Askegaard (2003), is also absent from the more general literature. I now turn to the difficult task of finding this experience and preparing empirical ground on which Scylla and Charibdis can meet. Hopefully a truce can be formed there so that the ship of consumption studies may chart a freer path through the straight to the urgent tasks awaiting it.

Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


I found a place for this meeting in experiences of dissatisfied consumption, with objects being sold by their owners on the second-hand market, mainly in garage sales10. Accounts of individual experience of this phenomenon speak of agency and autonomy, particularly in attempts to gain satisfaction and in the construction of meaning around this process. They also give onto accounts of heteronomy in dissatisfaction and disappointment. The juxtaposition of these two aspects provides the ground for the synthesis discussed above. Despite the focus, on dissatisfaction, accounts of satisfied consumption also arose and I have incorporated these in discussion where relevant to the argument. Interviews were semi-structured, audio-recorded and lasted from 30 to 90 minutes. All of the interviews began by seeking the objects that had been the most intensely wanted. They then addressed these objects individually, focusing on accounts of the initial wants and the subsequent period leading up to the eventual decision to dispose of the object. I conducted interviews using elements of ethnographic questioning technique (Spradley 1979), with a particular focus on concrete experiences with the object, though accounts arose at higher levels of abstraction. I analysed accounts in terms of an emergent conceptual framework, outlined below, and in terms of their similarities and differences. Though not explicitly sought, participants often explicitly voiced anti-consumerist opinions in abstraction from the relationships with objects under discussion. Opinions are a part of participants’ experience, but are of an epistemological value to be


I found garage sales in online classifieds site Gumtree, listed with their location and often a list of goods on sale. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


exchanged in a different sphere to that of the accounts of experience used here, and as such I use them sparingly and note that they are opinions. The sample of seven11 contains a degree of deliberate variety in terms of gender, age and geographical location within Melbourne. This is in pursuit of the maximal rigor possible within time and resource limitations of the research. The rigor that I seek is in line with the analogy of phenomenology as obtaining different views of an object in three-dimensional space (Barnacle 2001: 6). In this analogy each view yields a different picture of the same object and together they yield a more detailed idea of it.12 Whereas a single instance of a theme in an account could signal an idiosyncrasy or a particularity of any number of other categories, comparisons and contrasts between a variety of different people point to something more: to a shared structure of meaning with regard to the phenomenon. I posit that this shared structure of meaning is a shared culture of consumption. This sample was taken within Melbourne and is biased in this regard, and additionally insofar as the tendency to have garage sales or to sell second hand objects associates with particular characteristics13. Even moreso, perhaps, than other areas of life, what people say about consumption differs from what they do (Martinez 2010: 610), and one can easily mistake justification for explanation (Miller 2012: 68). Participant accounts are filtered through multiple layers of interpretation. This happens at the moment of the experience when a person perceives and makes sense of it according to
11 12

I conducted two additional interviews, but these did not yield relevant data. This notion of rigor as different views of the same object corresponds with the term consilience as used to describe participants’ representations. There is a resonance, then, between the methodology that I use in the research and that emerging in participants’ accounts of their representations. 13 The participants in this study are all WEIRD in terms of humanity as a whole (Henrich, Heine & Norenzayan 2010): Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. In addition to that, the sample of six included two downshifters reducing their overall possessions and two with strong sentiments against consumerism. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 16

abstract models of the situation. It occurs in the creative process of memory where one fills in ever-incomplete memories in an attempt to make sense of them in terms of her past, present and future. It also occurs in the interview itself insofar is this is a creative process, not least because of the relationship with me, the interviewer.14 It also occurs as a result of the vast gap between the huge collection of complex, indescribable memories attached to an object on the one hand and the relatively tiny collection on the other hand, obtained in an hour’s talking, of accounts of those memories. Lastly it occurs in the attempts of the researcher to decipher the meaning of these accounts. The focus on concrete experience in accounts offset some of these factors, as did rapport with participants (Spradley 1979) which allowed accounts and associations to emerge with as little direction, and therefore as ‘naturally’, as possible. Though there is something of a long and winding path between the reality of experience and accounts of it, such accounts say something about that reality and about the filters through which it has been put. To a certain extent, the reality content of accounts of experience is bracketed here – if Mitch says his excitement ‘frizzled away’, I bracket the question of whether he in fact experienced his excitement in this way, rather than attempting to determine whether this account has been distorted by his model of desire, his memory or the interview. I suspend theoretical interpretation in an attempt to grasp meaning rather than impose it (Moisander & Thompson 2003). At the same time, I interpret this statement as a small insight into Mitch’s thoughts.


I avoided bringing my opinions into discussions but there were this was the only way to get at the phenomenon. In some garage sales the most relevant objects weren’t those on display but those long discarded. Brad’s account of his watch was one such instance – he only told me this story after I had revealed my critical attitude towards consumption. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 17

From these accounts I theorise about the meanings associated with an object in a person’s mind, which I refer to as representations. While it is impossible to know these completely, accounts of experience can give a real insight into them. I do not attempt to make generalisable claims about unsatisfied consumption in and of itself or within society. Such generalisations will be left to the reader and to further research. The suggestions made in this paper, rather, aim to outline the potential for beneficial dis-consumption and provide the theoretical syntheses for future research.

A number of key concepts emerged in my interpretation of accounts. I used these to form a conceptual model that I use throughout the paper. This model speaks of the realisation of use-value and the dissonance that arises in this process, with the degree of the concrete and the abstract in accounts forming a key aspect. A detailed outline of this conceptual model with an example is included in the Appendix, but I will define the terms here. Participants’ experiences with objects at all stages of consumption, in both experience and imagination, are represented at different levels of the abstract and the concrete. I define these terms in their opposition: the abstract is the idea of a thing (object or relationship) rather than the concrete thing itself. The imagination of what my new bike will be like is more abstract and less concrete than my experience of the old one. Experience and memory of a concrete object are of course abstract in certain ways, but still less abstract than experience or memory without the concrete object.

Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


These levels pertain to the agents themselves (the person or people using the object) as well as the objects of consumption, conceptualised together in a concrete relationship of use-value. At the highest level of abstraction from this relationship in the agent is the category of people in general – any person. Within this category and less abstract in terms of the use-value relationship is the ‘any person’ for whom a consumer object is made. This is the person who exists in the mind of an object’s designers as the ‘audience’ of their creation, and in the negative image of the person borne by the object: the outline of a human torso inside a jacket or the range of leg motion drawn by a bicycle’s pedals. Within this category is the agent in terms of their value15 in the use-value – their valuing of the fitness, manliness or excitement that they hope to realise in use with the object, and their agencies in realising this value independently of a particular object. Within this category are their agencies and constraints with regard to realising the use-value with the object – their ability to use the object, to ride the bike. Within this category is that of concrete actions in using the object. The greatest degree of abstraction in the object is objects in general. Within this category is another category particularly salient to this paper: that of commodities or consumer objects. Within this is a group of objects (such as board games) and their affordances16. Within this is the type of object (Blokus) and within this is the particular object (that Blokus set on the shelf in the shop, my

Value here refers to ‘use-value’ in abstraction from ‘use’. I define it generally as “conceptions of what is ultimately good, proper, or desirable in human life” (Graeber, 2001:1). That which can be expressed or realised in a particular object but also with other objects or indeed without objects. 16 Affordance is defined here as the characteristics of the object that allow people to do things with it. These affordances can be in abstraction from a use-value (one can use a Blokus set as kindling to start a fire) or in connection with it (a family can use it to play together). I take affordances in objects to be the counterpart, within use-value, of agency in the person. Though they do not make up the whole of use-value, the two exist in a constitutive relationship with use-value as a whole. I assume, for instance, that for a given representation of use-value, there is an inverse if not zero-sum relationship between agency in the person and affordance in the object. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 19

Blokus set). These last two both contain the affordances of the use-value (such as the ability to keep the agent interested) as well as more general characteristics in terms of the particular use-value relationship (looking nice, smelling like cardboard). Representations of either an agent or an object at all levels of abstraction are connected with each other to some extent. They are linked between the agent and the object through the relationship of use-value. Different types of knowledge and experience simultaneously engage different levels of the abstract and the concrete. Knowledge regarding others’ use of a type of object (such as the recommendations of family and friends regarding a particular board game) is more abstract in terms of the agent’s relationship of use-value than her experience of other board games with her family. The former is more concrete in terms of the particular type of object but more abstract in terms of the agent’s family. Different levels of abstraction, as intimated above in the placing of more concrete representations ‘within’ those that are more abstract, are related within the overall representation of the agent and within that of the object. Imagination, defined as the process of filling in mental representations, must work, in the context of the use-value, between different levels of the abstract and the concrete. It fills in levels of abstract and concrete for which there is not enough experience or information. If one imagines what it will be like to have an object that she has never owned before, she will use existing knowledge of the agent and of the object at higher levels of abstraction to create this representation. She will ‘concretise’ by attempting to combine knowledge particular to herself with abstract knowledge that she draws from other sources. If one owns or tries something, the reverse process of abstraction can take place: one can take concrete experience and from it
Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


construct more abstract representations of the object and himself. If a thing is useless for the category of ‘people like me’, for instance, I may imaginatively concretise this to be useless for me in particular. If a board game works for my friend’s family, or if it works for the family in the advertisement it is concretising imagination that tells me that it might work for mine. A persistent theme in this conceptual model and the relevant accounts of experience, and one critical to the key arguments of this paper, is the potential for ambiguity and conflation between these levels of abstraction which I call the consilience 17 of representations. An example may serve: if one experiences dissonance in using a treadmill he may explain this dissonance as any or all of the following as an explanation and may incorporate any or all into his representations: he is incapable of regular exercise, this treadmill is no good, this treadmill is no good for him, all treadmills are no good, or that exercise equipment is not what he needs to get fit. Representations of a particular experience or object that are different in terms of abstraction can exist without contradiction,18 and none of them exhaustively describe the object or experience. There is therefore a degree of imaginative or creative play in this representational consilience. Realisation is defined here as the process whereby people, in relationship with an object, attempt to activate the use-value that they perceive in that object, to use its affordances to bring their value to life. Use-value is defined here as an agent’s perception of an object’s affordances in relation to a value: the valued


The term ‘consilience’ refers to agreement between different types of knowledge a ‘jumping together’ of those types of knowledge, or different roads to the same conclusion. My usage constitutes a slight twist on the concept, which holds that this jumping together strengthens the shared conclusion. In my usage, the different representations can exist in conflict and conflation even with the same conclusion, not necessarily strengthening it. 18 This is key for the concept of dissonance, described below, where it is these contradictory representations that ‘dissonate’. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 21

things that an object allows the agent to do. Use-values can be practical, with physical characteristics such as bicycle suspension providing the affordance to ride over rough terrain. Use-values can also be symbolic – defined as the object’s affordance to intersubjectively and/or intrasubjectively communicate symbolic messages. Note that in both of these conceptions, many different things can result from use-value relationships: states of emotion and experience for both the agent and others as well as transformations of the agent for example19. I use the term ‘dissonance’ to refer to a mismatch or contradiction between different representations. Here the focus is on that between different representations of use-value in participants’ relationships of realisation20. In many participant accounts, perceived use-value is higher than use-value in realisation. People pay money for an object and then ‘don’t get the value’ out of it. We can productively relate this conceptual model with another body of literature. Just as an object can be both a commodity and a possession simultaneously, (Appadurai 1986, Kopytoff 1986) so can its representations in commodity-sign and a possession-sign. Even when one possesses an object fully, there remains a representation of the object as a commodity, in abstraction. The defining feature of the commodity I take here to be this abstraction or disconnection from particular people, producer or consumer (following Hart


I emphasise the association between these emotions and the specific use-values of objects – one’s motive toward an object can never be in total abstraction from their perception of its use-value. It is only through a fetishistic generalisation of that use-value that we attribute that use-value to the object in and of itself. The object manifests as any number of characteristics in abstraction from a subjective use-value. A bicycle, if we care to try, may taste like pomegranite, but it is not this or the bike as a collection of molecules that we value. At heart it is the idea of the bike in a relationship of use-value. 20 It is necessary to restrict the concept to a common area such as use-value in order for it to be meaningful in terms of the sonic metaphor. Musically speaking, this means a dissonance between tonal instruments rather than what occurs between a trumpet and, for instance, an atonal cymbal: a dissonance rather than what might be termed ‘asonance’ or ‘insonance’. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 22

1982). This is the starting point for accounts of fetishisation and its effects on perceptions of use-value described above. These terms allow articulation of our discussion with the existing literature on the commodity-sign. The notion of the possession-sign introduced here adds an important distinction to the literature that discusses the commodity-sign as "the joining together of a named material entity (a good, product or service) as signifier with a meaningful image as signified (e.g. Michelob beer/'good friends')" (e.g. Goldman 1987: 691). Such definitions attribute all meaning in a commodity to advertisers and producers and thus neglect the potential for appropriation in the possession-sign. There is a sense in the literature on appropriation21 (e.g. Miller 2012: 108, 1988, deCerteau 1988: vii) that people’s ability to construct meaning around objects means that they are free to interpret and experience it in any way that they please. The commodity-sign as conceived here, however, resists appropriation and remains in perception even as a possession-sign is formed. Here is a potential for synthesis between the paradigms of consumption as oppression and liberation: people appropriate the meaning of commodities, but with limitations in the commodity-sign. Personal experience and interpretation does not necessarily produce information that alters the commodity-sign. In experience with an object one can form perceptions and meanings about that object in relation to themselves, but relatively little about the object in abstraction. The perception of relatively stable monetary value is just one sign of the relatively stable use-value in the commodity-sign. Appropriations are based heavily on the agent and their personal experience and these may be idiosyncratic, so the agent

I define appropriation as the process by which a person or people re-interpret the meaning of an object according to their own needs Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 23

cannot assume that their experiences with an object mirror those of others. To the degree that this experience is in fact idiosyncratic, one must abstract themselves from their perception of the object to produce knowledge that for the commoditysign. Without such abstraction, the aggregation of accounts22 is the only way to ‘translate’ information from the possession-sign into the commodity-sign. With this in mind, consider the relative amounts of information circulating about commodities. People have access to increasing amounts of information about commodities, and not all of it not originates from or is controlled by producers (Lash & Urry 1994: 2). Despite this fact, the appropriated meanings produced by individuals, even if they are disseminated to an intersubjective level (of a subculture for instance), come up against meanings produced and disseminated in huge volume by advertising. They are arguably much less in volume, even in certain forms of aggregation. Appropriation of commodity-signs has been shown at the level of subcultures (Hebdige 1979) that can be characterised as self-conscious counter-cultures (Graeber 2011: 490). In these groups then, there is a counter-cultural tendency to re-appropriate commoditysigns from the dominant culture, and a greater means for their aggregation within the subculture. It remains to be seen, therefore, whether appropriation occurs at a larger scale or if appropriation is simply generalised so that all consumers are merely imagined as members of counter-cultures or subcultures (Graeber 2011: 490).


Amazon product reviews such as those for Maddie’s door stop are one way in which individual possession-signs are aggregated into commodity-signs that may actually compete with that of the producer: The tendency to forget this fact can be read in the widely divergent information particular to a person and a house (in the possession-sign) being attributed to the object itself (the commodity-sign). Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 24

In the following chapter I look at accounts of the ways in which objects are perceived in the stage between the decision to purchase them and the beginning of realisation – the stage dominated by imagination and abstraction. I discuss the role of imagination in the accounts of high and almost fantastical 23 use-value in objects, forming the basis for later dissonance. I will introduce the concept of ersatz concrete use-value and look at the ways in which it can be conflated with original use-value and thus inflate it. Alongside the creative agency in this imagination, I question the role of advertising in it. In the following chapter I look at the stage of realisation, beginning soon after an object is purchased. I describes the dissonance that can arise with a distinction between the disappointment and reinforcement of ersatz concrete usevalue and the realization of original use-value. I examine the ways in which participants account for these types of dissonance as well as accounts of the consumption that follows – cyclical consumption, disconsumption or a change of motive such as a loss of hope.


This is a particularly appropriate word given its origins in Greek phantazein, ‘to have visions, imagine’ (Jewell & Abate, 2001) Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 25


Anticipation is a key aspect of consumption. In the period before realisation and concrete experience, imagination informs people’s perceptions of what it will be like to own an object, providing the stuff for creative, sometimes intense or even overpowering longing. For Campbell, it is the ‘pleasant longing’ of daydreaming that differentiates modern hedonism and ‘insatiable’ consumption from the frustrated desire of waiting in ‘traditional hedonism’ (1986: 85-86). In this chapter I will examine accounts of imagination in the stage leading up to realisation, before purchase and just after it. I will show how imagination, particularly in its creativity, can construct representations of use-value that are inflated and as such can act as fuel for dissonance and disappointment. I will then turn to the question of what shapes this imagination and a brief textual examination of some relevant advertising to draw connections with some participant accounts. We can interpret accounts of imagination with regard to their concreteness and abstractness in terms of a concrete use-value relationship24. Imagination works with the resources that it has in order to construct a representation of an object’s usevalue. It can abstract from concrete experience of a use-value relationship in a


This is outlined in the Emergent Conceptual Framework in Chapter one. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


process that I call imaginative abstraction 25 . People can also use abstract representations to construct more concrete representations of use-value in imaginative concretisation26. In this scheme, imagination makes creative leaps over gaps in experience and knowledge in order to construct complete representations of an object’s use-value in relationship with an agent27. This process can be read in participant accounts in association with an inflated perception of use-value, sometimes to the extent that limitations are removed and the possibilities of the object seem almost endless. To a certain extent, no amount of imagination can reveal what an actual relationship will be like before it is tried, meaning one must simply try and see. It remains, however, that imagination influences what and how people try, as well as the experience of dissonance that may follow in realisation.

Some accounts suggested blurred boundaries in imagination between the agent, the object and the relationship between the two. In line with the consilience of abstract representations28 there is potential in this indeterminacy for the reimagining of these boundaries, and of the loci of agency, affordance and value. This can fuel


Devon taking the feeling experienced in test driving a bike and abstracting from that to imagine it in other places is an example of this. 26 Maddie contemplating a particular board game in the shop and imagining whether her family will be able to play it is an example. Imaginative concretisation is a paradox in the sense that imagination in and of itself can only produce abstractions. Nonetheless, it denotes participants’ accounts of their attempts to imagine the concrete – a concrete relationship of use-value. It also denotes the fact that the aspects of the agent that are brought into imaginative relationship with the object are known to the agent and thus possibly more resistant to imaginative alteration. 27 ‘Agent’ here refers to the person or group of people using an object 28 Discussed in Chapter one, Pg 21 Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 27

conflations and inflations of agency in the object and in the object’s user29. When an object has the capacity to extend or add to the capabilities of the agent through its use, there is a blending of human agency and object affordance, a blurring of the boundaries between the agent and the object when imagining use-value between them. This produces a difficulty in the agent’s interpretation: even in realisation it is difficult to determine with any certainty where an agent’s capability stops and the object’s begins, let alone in imagination, as the following accounts show. Maddie, a mother of three living with her family in Werribbee, has bought a number of board games as means for her family to play together. In connection with her motive to buy board games, Maddie recounts that she has an image of the family playing together that "never quite worked out”. 30 Given that new games are constantly being developed, Maddie will encounter games of which her family has no concrete experience, and must speculate as to its use-value - a process of imagination. This utilises concrete experience and information that she already has: experience of the family playing other board games and thus the relationships of usevalue with the category of board games or its sub categories (dice games or card games for example). To form an image of the family ‘playing together’ and realising the use-value of the new game she must perform imaginative concretisation by bringing together her representations of concrete experience with abstract representations of the new game. In Maddie’s account she assesses a prospective game based on how well she imagines that it will work, in particular whether or not her daughter will be able to play it. In doing so she utilizes representations that are abstract in terms of the use-value relationship with the anticipated game: abstract

‘Agency’ here refers to a person’s potential to produce a particular effect in terms of a value or a usevalue. It suggests but does not necessarily involve an intentional or conscious aspect. 30 The process is hung up on the children's age differences, the need for her teenage son to be coerced into playing and her twelve year old daughter's tendency to invent her own rules. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 28

information about the game itself as presented on the box or in advertising or in friends’ accounts, her daughter’s characteristics and her own knowledge of the category of board games and their characteristics. Maddie thus creates an image by rearranging incomplete and abstract representations. She also imagines differential loci of agency and affordance in different representations. Maddie thinks about “whether Lisa can handle it or not, whether she can handle the complexity” as well as the family “playing together”, outlined above. Maddie can shine a spotlight on two different parts of an image – one on the whole family and one on just Lisa and the game. The former image attributes more agency to the family (Lisa’s tendency to cheat with this game, playing with the people in this family) while the latter places it in Lisa and more affordance31 in the game itself (Lisa’s tendency to cheat with this particular game). The game is a mediator of social relationships of play in the former, while in the latter it is a more determining factor in those relationships, and abstracted from them. Imagination, in choosing between these two images, can play with that relationship and notions of the agent by ‘fading’ the lighting between them. There is a possibility for the relationship and the family’s characteristics to be imagined as less determinative, with the game’s characteristics as more determinative, or vice versa. Maddie recounts the story of a print-and-share camera32 that she originally bought for her parasailing business to make prints for customers. When the business no longer needed it she thought her kids might enjoy it. She recalls thinking that "for a kid, to me that would be great fun if you had endless photo paper and you could just do whatever you wanted". Though this is certainly hyperbole and possibly


Bearing in mind that agency and affordance are assumed to be in a loosely inverse relationship in their relationship in a given use-value, as discussed on Pg. 19, Ff. 16 32 This camera is able to both take and print photos, similar to a Polaroid camera. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 29

merely intended to demonstrate the camera’s capability in isolation, the account removal of limitations in the accounts hints at such a removal in imagination. Though Maddie was not anticipating the purchase of a commodity, and she had concrete experience of the camera, her account is of the imaginative concretisation of the object as it moves to others in her family. This hyperbolic account of cornucopia and the absence of limits can be thought of in terms of the camera’s affordances. The printed photo bears the camera’s affordances, objectified as a print on the limited and relatively costly photo paper. The camera does have the affordance to turn blank paper into a photograph but not the connected affordances of cornucopia: conjuring “endless photo paper” or of allowing one to do ‘anything’ that they want. These are connected to an actual affordance of the object and are perhaps inflations of it. Though other accounts may suggest that the commodity form is determinative in imagination, this account of a gift suggests that factors other than the commodity form can be associated with inflated perceptions of use-value. Maddie recounts her excitement at the purchase of one of the first hand-held electronic organisers – she recalls imagining “all the things it does!” (emphasis hers) before experiencing it in reality, and relates how she took an aeroplane flight and “the entire time read the manual and it was just one of those... It was so lame!” Subsequently she found that the organiser didn’t have many functions, and she lost her excitement. It was “just a step above writing it down”. Here is a gap in perceptions of the object’s affordances and its actual affordances. Here Maddie’s imaginative concretisation of the organiser inflates the things it does, in almost quantitative fashion. If the commonality between the organiser’s affordance and ‘writing it down’ represents the use-value at work here, that use-value is something
Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


like ‘recording information’. Her realisation afterwards of her own agency to write things down to realise this use-value suggests that this was effaced in imagination and perhaps transferred into the object’s affordances. Devon33 recalls developing a motive to purchase a downhill mountain bike when he saw other people doing “crazy stuff” on their downhill bikes. He describes the motive arising out of a feeling of being 'limited' when riding. He says he saw people riding down 'crazy stuff' and thought: "I want to be able to do that. I want to be able to point the bike in any direction and hold on and be able to just ride down anything" (emphasis mine). In this account can be read an expression of an affordance redressing a lack that Devon perceives in himself and thus a blending of his limitation of agency with the new affordance of the bike. The theme of being unlimited in riding speaks of an inflated perception of this agency. Devon speaks of a subsequent “obsession” with the downhill mountain bike that he had decided to purchase. He recalls to me that in the period of anticipating the purchase he found a picture of the bike, put it on the desktop of his work computer, and excited himself by regularly looking at it as well as researching information about it. He decribes obsessively looking at the photo of the bike on his desktop "cos it was visually, it was a beautiful-looking bike". In this account there is a slight grammatical hint at the agency of seduction attributed to the bike – Devon’s account renders its visual characteristics, rather than his own perception, as causal in the obsessive looking.


Devon lives above a pub in inner suburban Melbourne. He organizes flash mob dancing parties, is into music with good speakers and riding mountain bikes with his mates. He works as an ambulance driver, and is proud of having worked hard to overcome his "dishevelled past" as a child who did not receive an abundance of material goods and as an adult working in "shit-kicking" jobs. He owns a downhill or ‘all-mountain’ mountain bike, and has another one on layby. These were the same model – a Kona ‘Stinky’. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 31

I ask him what he felt when he did this browsing and he replies “I just wanted to get on it and ride it. It was an overwhelming urge, a compulsion”. When imagining the bike he currently has on layby34 the feeling of riding is also a key aspect. Devon says he “visualised” how he could “apply”, to other locations that he knows, the feeling of the ride that he felt in the test at the shop. He says he vividly imagines the sensation of the bike's deep suspension as 'crisp and fresh' and free from any defects like looseness or noise. He imagines "letting the bike just absorb all of that energy as you ride over it and not fall over and kill yourself". Here is a process of imaginative abstraction where the concrete experience of the test ride is abstracted or generalised to locations outside of the test-ride. Devon imagines perfection in the suspension and inflation of the bike’s affordances as it absorbs “all the energy”. Mitch35 decided to buy a downhill mountain bike after riding a track that ‘blew his mind’ on a borrowed bike at sunrise in the Dandenong Mountains outside of Melbourne. He was so excited that he bought the bike a day after his decision to purchase it. After, he recounted that time, work and a lack of energy constrained him from using the bike. I asked him if he had imagined those constraints during the anticipation of buying the bike. He replied with "Not really, I was kinda so excited to buy a bike and this was gonna be awesome", and continued: "You kinda don't think about the actual reality of it, you kinda just do it. You're like yeah I'm gonna go every weekend I'm gonna go all the time I'm gonna take a week off here I'm just gonna go blah blah blah". When I followed by querying "So in the time when you were gonna buy it you weren't thinking too much about the practicalities?" he replied

Devon owned one Kona Stinky and had another of the same brand and type on layby at the time of the interview. Though they are the same type, the designs of these bikes differ slightly from year to year as each model is released, and as components such as suspension and derailleurs are updated. 35 Mitch is a young man who works in a restaurant in Melbourne. His was the shortest interview and the only one conducted over the phone. He was also the only person not contacted through a garage sale – I found the ad for his bike on the website Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 32

"I didn't know about them". He said it was a lot of effort to pack up the bike and travel to places where he could ride downhill. As well as not imagining the limitations, or not knowing about them, Mitch's account suggests that he was imagining the removal of limitations – he imagined away limitations that later proved to be there. More specifically he imagined himself overcoming limitations taking weeks off work and riding "all the time". He described his hope to me: "I just thought it'd be an awesome hobby. It 'd help me get fit, and, you know, I can do something on the weekends and kind of have a hobby. You know I kind of struggle to find a hobby so I thought that'd be awesome". Here the affordance of the bike to allow the practise of downhill riding can be read as generalised to Mitch. It is perhaps the exciting practise that allows him, in imagination, to overcome the limitations with which he has previously struggled. To the extent that downhill riding relies on the characteristics of the bike (and this is to a great extent in such riding), that bike is a necessary condition of the practise. It thus constitutes a high degree of blending between agency and affordance36. Mitch describes a period soon after buying his bike, before use, where he would watch videos of others riding downhill, including professional riders, and that this would get him ‘super pumped’ to go riding. Mitch connects his viewing of other people riding with excitement in himself. Here, imaginative concretisation allows abstract representations of others’ use to enter Mitch’s representation of his own use. Imagination opens the door to otherness, to an arena of play where the agent can be creatively reimagined in terms of self and other. Indeed, Mitch draws a direct contrast between himself and other in terms of work: “if you look at all the people on DVDs and they're all professionals and they do it every day of their life


The bromide that ‘a man is only as good as his tools’ can, then, at least appear to be accurate. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


and that's their job, type of thing. You're like ‘I'd love to do that blah blah blah’ but, you know, It's kinda not really realistic when you work full time and you get bills and stuff”. Although the professionals may have practiced for thousands of hours, their capabilities are similarly connected to the bike; they may be highly skilled, but, like all downhill riders they rely heavily on their equipment. Their high degree of agency can, therefore, be easily be conflated with the affordances of the bike. Perhaps this is why it is easy for one to forget their self when watching videos of pros riding the bike that one is going to buy. Here is a basis for the logic that ‘I could be just like that’ with the right bike: the pros need one too. It is through the commonality of the object that imaginative concretisation allows for others to stand in for, or mesh with, the self. The bike, in imaginative concretisation, acts as a bridge, carrying the agency of the professionals to the agent. Mitch’s first experience with the bike could be characterised as a liminal experience (Turner 1987), removed from Mitch’s normal time and space. It was exciting, awesome, “happy and free” in Mitch’s words, full of possibility and agency in Turner’s. How could he grasp that experience and make it into more than something singular and fleeting, to pull it into his day-to-day life? Though he tells me about the process of waking up at three in the morning and catching the train to the Dandenongs where he had the original ride, his actions that were necessary for this experience were either not present in or effaced from his accounts of imagination in anticipation. He admits to not thinking, in his excitement, about some of these practicalities and not knowing about others. The bike was a necessary but not sufficient for the practise, but the imaginative leap between the two logical conditions is not large. In Mitch’s account there is a conflation between his agency and the
Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


bike’s affordances, and an attribution of the excitement of the original experience to the bike itself. He deemphasises his own agency in a liminal moment in favour or the affordances of the bike – its objective characteristics – as determinative of the experience. Leanne loves to knit for her family37. When she bought her knitting machine, she was experiencing the symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis and had difficulty using her hands, and difficulty knitting manually. She recalls "I thought if I could get a machine, if I could get it wired up, I could at least make something… I hadn't quite twigged that I didn't have the thinking capacity at the time to actually do it". She tells me that she'd had "all these ideas" for blankets and cushion covers – aspects of her agency in the process. Leanne says she was imagining a 'fix' in the machine - she hoped to remove the limitations associated with her Multiple Sclerosis in order to produce knitted objects. Additionally, Leanne either didn't imagine or didn't know about the complexity of the machine before she bought it. Trying may be the only way to know in a situation like this, but Leanne’s recollection that her imagination did ‘not quite twig’ is significant. It is hard for her to imagine the object’s affordances in relation to her agency. Though the machine has the affordance to expedite the production of knitted goods, it relies on Leanne’s agency to conceive the products and to operate the machine. Here, she describes the use-value in terms of a fix to her lost ability to produce knitted objects. Here again is a deep blending of agency and affordance. This is similar, in terms of this blending, with Devon’s account of feeling limited while riding. In Leanne’s account of the


Not only does it ensure that she always has something to do on cold days when she's cooped up inside (‘it's a Scottish thing’, she says), it also allows her the satisfaction of making things for people that are "bang on the money for them". She is the mother of two teenagers who works as a business analyst. She proudly shows me photos of the 'Johnny Rotten on steroids' torn jumper that she made for her daughter to match the ones going for thousands of dollars in the shops. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 35

machine as a ‘fix’, she imagines it as redressing her lack of agency. Some of the object’s affordance becomes her agency in the relationship of use-value, but how much is difficult to determine in imagination. Brad38 recalls, with some disgust, his motive to buy a watch when he was a teenager. He recounts that he has since rejected many aspects of what he now calls materialism. At the time, he anticipated that "this deep-sea diver thing" would "take me 50 metres under the sea and be like a real man kinda thing, you know”. Here is a grammatical indication of not only affordance but also agency in the object. Rather than Brad diving 50 metres and using the watch to check the time while he is there, the watch would take him there – a verb with connotations of intentionality and consciousness.

In some accounts of anticipation there is an intense and sometimes overpowering excitement associated with a mixture of using an object and ‘just having it’. In Brad’s account there is recollection of an expectation in anticipation and newness stages that possession of an object will manifest certain feelings or states. Devon and Mitch describe intense excitement at just possessing their bikes. Devon speaks of ‘losing of control’ in buying his first Kona Stinky bike. He had agreed on a payment plan but upon going to the shop to pay an instalment instead put “the whole thing” on his credit card. "Basically I realised that I could have it...

Brad is a young man and an artist, originally from Queensland. He lives with his wife in a Fitzroy warehouse, preparing to move out and go travelling. His favourite book is Journey to the East by Herman Hesse, of which he owns a copy that he values intensely. He describes himself as not ‘giving a shit’ about lots of things including most material possessions, a shift that has come about in recent years living in Melbourne. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 36

it was this overwhelming sensation, this urge just to have it then and there” (emphasis mine). Mitch describes his experience at the moment of possessing the bike, when he has yet to attempt realisation in use: “You've got this amazing thing it's just wow, I own this now and this is super. How do you describe it? I remember buying the bike and walking it home and it was just… It was like it was Christmas, I was so excited and I couldn't wait to take it out (riding). I was happy for like a week, I was like super ecstatic. Just having it was really exciting.” (emphasis mine). Brad describes not just excitement about possession but his perception of what that possession would yield. He recalls thinking and feeling that the watch would “make me more manly, make me happier for some reason". He imagined that if he “had this watch” he would be "a better person somehow", "more fulfilled" in himself. The experience of the possession of an object as the source of such great excitement can be dismissed as a normal part of newness and change, but this explanation does not exhaust the excitement described here. To believe that ‘just having’ an object will cause a quality to materialise in one’s life, that such possession will realise a use-value such as manliness, or the overcoming of a demanding work life, involves a perception of huge, almost magical affordances in the object. Whence comes this perception? In the scheme I have presented, usevalue must be realised, but this perception completely effaces realisation. Even in the realm of symbolic use-value, whatever real intersubjective symbols are associated with an object must be realised in use through a process of display and interpretation39. What kind of use-value is at work in this effacement?


Someone who shares the symbol must, for example, see me wearing my watch appropriately and interpret this to mean I am a manly man or a good person. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 37

The idea of ersatz use-value is commonly attributed to Theodor Adorno. Broadly, exchange value alters perceptions of the use-value of objects. Use values are “deformed” in the face of the “world of commodities” and the fungibility of all its objects (Adorno 1974:146), allowing the commodity to take on a range of illusions, such as those produced by advertising (Featherstone 2007, Lury 1996, Applbaum 2003). Perhaps due to the confusion about the location of Adorno’s writings on the issue40, I have been unable to find in his work any explicit account of ersatz use-value. I will elaborate one here. There is one obvious problem with the commonly held definition of the ersatz use-value as any symbolic association beyond ‘functional value’ (Applbaum 2003, Goldman 1987, Baudrillard 1981). Miller points out that all societies, including those that are non-capitalist and pre-capitalist, create symbolic meaning with regard to objects (Miller 2012: 184). This observation does not collapse distinctions in consumption between these societies and capitalist societies as he suggests. It does point, however, to the error of thinking of all symbolic value (as distinct from functional value), as ersatz (Applbaum 2003: 32) or as a commodity-sign constructed by advertisers (Goldman 1987: 691). Maddie’s account of gimmicks gives a more general but useful definition of ersatz use-value: “something that gets you excited about the product but isn't really the purpose of the product for me… not a sustainable excitement”. Following this, an ersatz use-value is taken here as a perceived use-value that is outside the original


All sources point towards his (1974) Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life. There is no mention of ersatz use-value in either the English edition or the German edition that I have examined. There is a discussion of the concepts of use-value, exchange-value and their interaction on page 146 of this text. This is the closest that I have been able to come to finding Adorno in his own words on ersatz use-value. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 38

use-value, and that replaces or stands in for that use-value to some extent41. The original use-value, in Maddie’s words, is “the purpose of the product” – the things for which it can actually be used. Contrary to the small amount of literature on the concept, ersatz use-value as defined here does not involve the obliteration of original use-value, but is, rather, a distortion of it and has a close relationship with it. Brad’s perception that the watch will manifest manliness is linked to an original use-value of residual symbolic meaning in the watch42. Mitch’s perception that the bike will overcome his difficulty in persisting with hobbies is linked to the bike’s affordance to enable a practise that he has experienced as an exciting hobby. Perceptions of use-value remain tied in some way to use, whether it is symbolic, functional or otherwise. Within his account of excitement at owning the bike, Mitch recalls that he “couldn’t wait to take it out (riding)’. Devon balances his account of incurring significant debt43 in purchasing his first downhill bike under the influence of the “overwhelming urge” to have the bike: “I rode it every day, and I rode it a lot. And you can't really put a price on that”. Brad’s account of seeing the time and being taken underwater by the watch also point to original use-values, connected to these ersatz values but obscured by them. There is a specific kind of ersatz use-value is at work in the accounts of excitement in possession above: the perception that possession of an object will manifest an original use-value independently of any realisation in use. I refer to this as ersatz concrete use-value. Individual access rights are often a precondition of

The perceptive reader may detect, in the term ‘ersatz’ and its association with inferiority (ersatz coffee, for instance), undertones of judgement by the author or sugggestions of manipulation of the agent. I do not necessarily use the word in this sense but attempt to leave judgement to the reader. The sense of inferiority is strongly present in the English loan, but the less morally loaded sense exists in German alongside it, in terms such as vollwertiger Ersatz – ‘fully adequate replacement’. 42 This will be argued in Chapter four, along with a more thorough discussion of the connection between ersatz and original use-value. 43 He recalls that this debt “took ages to try and dig my way out of” Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 39

using an object. It is easy to conflate ersatz concrete and original use-value when possession and realisation are so closely related. The inflated ersatz concrete usevalue can easily be imagined as use-value in realisation. This conflation leads to an inflation of the perception of use-value and can fuel subsequent dissonance. Some accounts of ersatz use-value emphasise the object’s lack of encumbrance with any personal associations, with the agent or with any previous owners. This represents an abstraction in line with commodity fetishism where commodities purchased from the market are “a unity of what is revealed and what is concealed” (Leiss, Kline & Jhally 1990: 324). This fetishism conceals the labour that made the object as well as the relationship of design and production between producer and consumer that brought it into being and into ‘fit’ with the agent’s motives. This ‘mysterious fit’ opens up a space for unimaginable affordance: on some level it remains obscure and mysterious to a person how this object came to fit him. This fit is reinserted as an objective property of the object, despite the social origin of that fit. Brad recalls his experience of buying his watch as a teenager: "I guess it's like the packaging and all that sort of stuff. Opening it for the first time. It's brand new, nobody else has worn it, it's yours, you're starting it from the very beginning kinda thing” (emphasis mine). Brad’s account of the watch’s ‘very beginning’ obscures the watch’s actual beginning and life before Brad’s purchase, in design and production and subsequently distribution through the market. In addition to the lack of existing associations with himself in this beginning is the lack of associations with others, in the emphasis that nobody else has worn it. It is perhaps in this moment of newness, cleansed of all human associations that the object appears at its most magical, pregnant with the fantastical possibilities of ersatz concrete use-value.
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Concrete experience is a resource in imagination that forms another basis for imagining relationships of use-value. Broadly speaking, in the imagination described here, a greater degree of concrete experience with an object or a category of objects associates with a lesser requirement for imaginative concretisation. The concrete can thus brake the imaginary. In Campbell’s (1987) scheme, it is the novelty of objects and the associated absence of experience that allows the imagination of fantastical pleasures with objects. The object in reality cannot measure up to this untethered imagination, and is therefore inevitably disappointing and must be discarded in favour of something else. For Campbell this is the fundamental dynamic of modern insatiable consumption (1987: 94). What I outline here articulates with Campbell’s account but, in addition to the dichotomy between the novel and the known, there is a cross-cutting relationship between the concrete and the abstract. Fred, in his account, provides an example of such cross-cutting. Fred describes suggestions from fellow bike riders in his group that he buy a type of bike that was novel to him – a road bike. The suggestion was made “because there's so much resistance on the tyres” of the mountain bike that he was riding at the time. He recalls his response: "Yeah, like I'm gonna be worried about two-inch tyres when there's (laughs) 40 inches of me to stop the wind!” In this account there is a concrete experience acting as a brake on the imagination of an object’s use-value. In the face of a suggestion of high use-value in abstraction and determinative affordances in the object, Fred’s sceptical response places the determining agency of resistance in himself. Even in the face of novelty, one’s concrete experience can act as a brake to imagination of unlimitation or inflated affordance or agency in the object. In this way, one can refuse an inflated perception of use-value in otherness.
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Despite the possible scepticism grounded in concrete experience, how do people come to imagine such inflated use-values? How does imagination build expectations that sometimes end up so bitterly disappointed? As was discussed in the Introduction, disappointed consumption does not necessarily point directly to conclusions about the heteronomous factors in consumption by individuals. It does, however, motion in their general direction. Campbell’s scepticism about the ‘hypodermic model’ of advertising is tempered with a suspicion that advertising manipulates messages and attempts to reroute desires to consumer objects (1986: 47). Even if people are too critical to be individually manipulated by advertising, this does not negate the cultural44 effects of the consistent (Sandlin & Callahan 2009), nagging, inescapable, messages delivered by advertising. In critique of Sandlin’s assertion, these messages can hardly remain in culture if they are not accepted by individuals. An interrogation of the cultural effects of advertising cannot neglect individual interpretations. What kinds of messages slip through the nets of even the highly critical viewer of an advertisement?45 Ben anticipated manliness, happiness, self-improvement and fulfillment from the purchase of a watch, and was subsequently completely disappointed. He is unsure


The aspect of culture that would be the focus of such an approach is its shared meanings and the praxis that puts them into action. 45 I allow the cake icing tube model of advertising its possibly overgeneralised (Graeber 2011: 490) conception of people as having the critical appropriative faculties of subcultures and counter-cultures rather than conceptualising them as “passive mannequins” (Miller2012: 57). I do not wish to make a ‘straw mannequin’ argument out of the cake icing approach to advertising. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 42

about where these ideas came from but says “I was probably entrapped by a lot of advertising stuff [as a teenager]” and, at another point in the interview, “my guess is that advertising just worked really well on me when I was a kid”. I had already mentioned my interest in advertising to him, so Brad did not make this association independently. Whatever evidence value there is in Brad’s account, analysis of the institution of celebrity watch advertising46 speaks directly to his description of ersatz concrete use-value. A common thread in these adverts as a genre47 is the juxtaposition of images of iconic celebrities and the image of a branded watch. Significantly for Brad’s account, the celebrities are often iconic of masculinity or femininity48. This juxtaposition communicates a number of messages. The most obvious and easily deflected by the viewer is ‘buy this watch’. Less obvious is the message ‘this is a good brand’. Less obvious still are messages of symbolic association. The watch becomes a part of the celebrity’s image, which symbolises the characteristic of manliness, for instance. The advert thus cuts the watch into the celebrity’s image and thereby into its symbolic manliness. It communicates a message of symbolic association between the watch and manliness, via the celebrity’s image. The viewer may have to be slightly more critical to consciously resist this message. Subtler still is a message closely related, but importantly different: the message of the watch’s ersatz concrete use-value. This message suggests that the watch manifests the

At the time of writing, the institution of celebrity watch advertising is particularly well represented in Melbourne with a highly prominent Tag Heuer watch advertising campaign. This has put images of film stars and gender icons Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz all over the city with their Tag Heuer watches on prominent display. 47 In speaking of an ‘institution’ and a ‘genre’ I consciously move away from the need to necessarily blame a particular company for the effects of this advertising, and towards a less biased understanding of the heteronomy produced by these adverts. 48 CEO of watch company Raymond Weil is quoted, on signing a deal with actress Charlize Theron for her to exclusively wear their watches in public that “she has evolved into a feminine myth, an icon” (Sawer 2008) Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 43

characteristic of manliness. The advert effaces everything except the image of the celebrity bearing the watch - everything involved in the sign of the celebrity’s characteristic, both intrasubjectively and intersubjectively.49 The advert broadcasts the subtle promise that the watch can manifest characteristics in any who purchase it. Brad gives an account of internalising this message when he was a teenager. Maddie does not mention advertising as a motive to buy the Blokus game, but rather, she speaks of a friend’s recommendation. A Blokus advertisement aired in Australia50, however, aligns almost exactly with Maddie’s wish for her family to “play together” without getting tired of it. An American-accented voiceover line chimes in over footage of a nondescript, presumably Anglo-American, two-child family playing the game: "Blokus, the game of blocking your opponents, is so much fun, you'll want to do it again, and again and again". The direct address to a ‘you’ in what is, in reality, an indirect or multiple address is significant. ‘You’ are an abstract agent veiled as the viewer. That the ad can commit such a technical slip and still make sense points to the conflations discussed here between the abstract and the concrete subject as well as the agent and the object. By directly addressing the viewer, the advertisement speaks of the relationship between an abstract family and the game while veiling this as a concrete relationship between the viewer and the game. The ad thus collapses the relationship between ‘you’ and the game into the


These include the celebrity’s (and their employees’) work on their ‘image’, both social and individual: constructing their identities and characteristics: taking the right acting roles, becoming a competitive car racer and a celebrity. These are the process that presumably construct these characteristics, such as they are, into intersubjective symbols or icons borne by the celebrity and interpreted by others. 50 We see a mother running in coloured overalls and hear tense music playing in the background. Blocks fall from the sky as her kids say 'blocked you', her daughter looks at her with a smug grin and raises her eyebrows as she says this. In the final scene, the mother runs down stairs pursued now by her kids and a middle-aged man. She looks up and sees her block falling, and rolls underneath it. Her family stand trapped behind it as she takes her revenge: "blocked YOU!" The voice over chimes in over an image of the family playing Blokus together (Blimpy84, 2011). Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 44

object. It does not just leave out, as it must, the age differences of Maddie’s children, Lisa’s tendency to cheat, her son’s need to be coerced to play, it effaces them. It collapses the agency of Maddie’s family into the Blokus set and its affordances. In effacing this relationship of realisation, the advertisement sends messages that construct ersatz concrete use-value. With the object’s displaced agency replacing realisation, “playing again, and again and again” is presented as a state to be possessed with the object – an ersatz concrete use-value. The symbol of the watch at some point represented gender and identity in connection to its indexical use-values (such as carrying the time on one’s wrist, needed in the man’s world of work). Similarly, the Blokus set bears affordances that may be used by some families to play together “again, and again and again”. The advertisements analysed here communicate messages to people of the symbols of the objects: between the symbol of the watch and the characteristics of gender identity, and between the Blokus game and its affordances for playing together. The adverts construct cultural use-value in the idea that one can use the objects in particular ways to realise them. The advert also transmutes these symbolic relationships into concrete ones, suggesting that possession manifests a state like manliness or playing together. In this way it subtly alters the nature of existing symbolic relationship rather than creating or injecting new ones. It constructs cultural ersatz concrete use-value from cultural symbols and use-values. Insofar as it involves the telescoping if symbolic relationships into commodities and their possession, ersatz concrete use-value represents the fetishisation of the labour of advertisers51.


It is obscure already in the sense that it is unfathomable how a social meaning could be coordinated in such a way – how can one truly fathom the ways in which millions of people come to make similar interpretations of a symbol? The market thus obscures something that is already quite obscure and abstract. Some marketers may find the cake icing approach to advertising unfair, but some may find even more unjust the lack of ‘credit’ to the institution of marketing represented by this fetishisation. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 45

Though Brad and Maddie do not necessarily represent everyone who is subject to such marketing, this analysis certainly points to the need for consideration of the role of advertising in heteronomous consumption on both a cultural and individual level. Marketing texts are themselves a good place to start in such an understanding, particularly methods of branding referred to as ‘culture engineering’ that date back to the 1920s (Holt 2001: 80). These involve the connection of brands with “concrete expressions of valued social and moral ideas” and the promotion of the idea that consumer objects “materially embody people’s ideals” (2002: 80) including their “aspirations concerning their families” and “their masculinity and femininity” (2002: 80). These are almost eerily resonant with the advertisements analysed here and with the accounts of Brad and Maddie. They also resonate with other participants’ accounts of ersatz use-value and the ability of advertising to attach “images of romance, exotica, desire, beauty, fulfilment communality, scientific progress and the good life to mundane consumer goods such as soap, washing machines, motor cars and alcoholic drinks” (Featherstone 2007). I have argued, however, for something subtler than the attachment of images. I have argued that adverts cultivate existing symbols associated with use-value and transmute these into ersatz concrete use-value, and that they produce the deceptive message that having is being. It is time to hang up the cake icing tube approach to advertising. It is also time to leave behind the assumption that marketing simply responds to consumer desires (cf. Applbaum 1998: 325). I now turn to participants’ accounts of these imaginations and perceptions meeting the reality of use.

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How do people experience and account for attempts to realise use value, with perceptions shaped as they are by processes of imagination, inflated by advertising and ersatz use-value? In this section I examine accounts of these attempts in realisation. I examine the dissonance that arises between inflated perceptions of use-value in abstraction, both ersatz concrete and original, and the experience of that use-value. I then examine representations of this dissonance and the ways in which participants deal with it.

As the excitement of purchase and Christmas-like newness fades into memory, the process starts of using the object to realise the state, experience or meaning perceived in its use-value. As more and more experiences accumulate with the object, a possession-sign is formed. One begins to form personal representations of experiences related to this use-value: of the agent, the object and the relationship between the two. After a while, it becomes clear that use is not yielding its value. The object in experience sends messages of low use-value. And yet, the perception of the object’s use-value in abstraction remains stubbornly high in the commodity-sign.52 The object itself has not changed, and its monetary value has not changed a great deal. A gap thus arises between the perception of the object’s use-value in abstraction and the perception of the reality of the object’s


See pg. 23 Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


use-value in realisation: a dissonance. What are the kinds of dissonance that can arise?

ESSENTIALLY INSATIABLE DESIRES TO CONSUME, OR ERSATZ USEVALUE One important factor in the concept of dissonance is desire. Just as desire is a powerful and heady force in our lives, it is also a powerful and heady force in some theorising about consumption. I propose here that ersatz concrete use-value, as a factor in dissatisfied or insatiable consumption, is an additional and competing factor to the essentially insatiable nature of desire (Belk Ger & Askegaard 2003). It is a better explanation than the assertion that the signifier of possession alone causes the death of desire for the object. It should be facile to state that even if human desire is insatiable, that does not necessarily mean that desire for consumer objects is insatiable53. Belk Ger and Askegaard observe (2003: 341) in some of their participant accounts that “Once the


In line with Lacan’s conception that desires incorporate chains of signifiers stretching back to the infant’s unsatisfied demand for unconditional love from his or her mother, we might call this tendency ‘the object as mother assumption’. It is problematic to equate Lacan’s conception of unlimited desire with an unlimited desire for new objects rather than a desire for what the object represents or what one can achieve with it. In Lacan’s conception, unconscious desire (as opposed to conscious desire) is permanently displaced along a never-ending chain of signifiers without ever being captured by any one of them. (Lacan 2002, Seminar VI). In applying Lacan’s idea of desire to consumption we must introduce the idea of indexicality. This forms a stopping point for the never-ending chain of signifiers – a link to a particular, concrete use as well as to further signifiers, a point in the chain that emerges into the realm of conscious use-value. A vegetable peeler’s value, for example, is constituted in part by the sharp edge and human hand-sized handle that it indexically bears, and the capacity to peel vegetables that this symbolises. Of course wanting the capacity to peel vegetables could be connected to another endless chain of unconscious signifiers in Lacan’s scheme – the association between peeled vegetables and vegetable soup cooked by one’s mother for example. In this sense the vegetable peeler may be associated with an insatiable desire to peel vegetables, without being associated with an insatiable desire for vegetable peelers. The chain of signification breaks off through the index and is expressed in a use-value rather than continuing in the chain of signifiers. The desire is for the practise, not for the object itself. Objects can be for desire rather than objects of desire. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 48

object is possessed it loses its ability to remain the object of desire”. They do not provide an explanation for this loss of ability. They cite Gould (1991) for whom the signifier of possession in and of itself leads to dissatisfaction: “Postconsumption bliss leads to ‘the death of desire’ leading to the rebirth of desire focused on a new object”, a state which is itself desirable (citedBelketal330. For some, ‘desire desires desire’ (Taylor Saarinen & Virta 1994, Bauman 1997) rather than experiences, meanings, functions, or even objects themselves. This approach depicts what seems like a maddening, slightly Kafka-esque process as natural, one in which people are ‘doomed’ (Belk Ger & Askegaard 2003: 342) to dissatisfaction with the objects that they ‘desire’. Though this paper, using accounts of experience, cannot disprove these conceptions of desire in consumption, it can point out that the error of assuming and naturalising the doom of essentially insatiable consumption. Participant accounts suggest that it is the uses of objects, both functional and symbolic, and the states that this use produces that lies at the core of motives (including desires)54 for objects, rather than the objects themselves. They consistently give accounts of the state or meaning that they want in the objects, and where there is desire for the object in and of itself, this is described in relation to these states or meanings. In addition, some accounts of the death of intense excitement are not associated with purchase itself but with the use and realisation after purchase.


The term motive is used here to refer in open-ended to fashion to all of the things that motivate people towards an action, though in this thesis I consider only consumption. This captures desire, want, need, longing, as well as much else in between and besides. The term acknowledges the difficulty of defining the type of motive at play in a study based on accounts of experience. It also points to the pitfalls, pointed out here, of fetishising a concept such as desire in accounts of concrete experience and thus attributing essential features to that experience. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


People, individually and collectively, certainly invest objects with the meaning of the use or state with which it is associated, but this is not exclusively or naturally a property of desire (Belk Ger & Askegaard 2003: 329). To naturalise ‘the desire for objects’ is to commit a type of fetishism. This is in the attribution to the object itself, the desires associated with the agencies of the user (such as identity), and the agent’s relationship of use with the object and its affordances (such as using an object to signal identity). Ersatz concrete use-value and its disappointment provides a way of moving past these assumptions and connecting death of desire to structural factors in the commodity form. I will examine Brad’s account of his watch as the strongest account in this study of this type of ersatz use-value. Brad recalls wanting a diving watch as a teenager: "For some reason I wanted to have this deep-sea diver thing like you know, take me 50 metres under the sea and be like a real man kinda thing, you know... make me more manly, make me happier for some reason” (emphasis mine). His incredulity that he could think and feel such a thing is evident: “I remember thinking that, I can remember feeling when I was younger that if I had this watch or if I had all these things that I would be, a better person somehow? I'd be more fulfilled in myself, I'd be happier. Funnily enough, when I started working I did get a lot of those things that I always wanted when I was a kid, and then I realised that it doesn't change who I am inside really. I can see the time better, but..." There is almost a total dissonance, in Brad’s account, between his perception of the watch’s use-value in abstraction and imagination and his perception of its use-value in realisation. He realised almost none of the use-value that he had perceived in the watch. He describes no longer wanting it and getting rid of it soon after his disappointment.
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An ersatz concrete use-value replaces the original use-value of the object as an intersubjective symbol 55 in Brad’s account. Such symbolic use-value may be intrasubjective or intersubjective

and can be realised in practise. Brad’s

recollection, however, speaks of the watch manifesting these qualities. They would make him feel all of these things. If he had it he would be. In the words of the aphorism he felt that ‘the watch makes the man’.57 In the tale of ‘the Emperor’s New Clothes’ (Andersen 1837) two swindlers posing as weavers tell the Emperor that they can make him fine clothes of the most magnificent fabrics imaginable. These are special fabrics that are invisible to those who are stupid or unfit for their office. As the swindlers pretend on empty looms to weave for the Emperor, they demand more and more expensive materials from him, which they slip into their bags. The Emperor wants to see the material for himself but sends his ministers instead out of fear of his own inability to see it. The ministers do not see the fabric but will not admit to the fact for fear of seeming incompetent. The swindlers pretend to dress the Emperor in the non-existent clothes and he goes naked in procession into the town. At first the people pretend to see the clothes, but then a


It was not so long ago when watches were a luxury item beyond the average laborer’s budget (Thompson 1967: 67), giving onto their status as a luxury item and the symbolism that comes with such status. Following this and subsequent developments in material culture and advertising (as I argued in Chapter two), watches now stand, to a certain extent, in a symbolic relationship with the qualities that Brad describes. (cf. Douglas & Isherwood 1996 and Bourdieu 1984). 56 The watch as an intrasubjective symbol may rely, for instance, on the agent feeling manly or happy without the object, and merely symbolise these already existing feelings. As an intersubjective symbol it may symbolise these characteristics and feelings to others independently of their being felt by the agent. 57 “The clothes make the man” is a modern translation (highly inaccurate in terms of our discussion, but highly accurate, perhaps, as a diagnosis of the thinking that underpins ersatz concrete use-value) of the original text in Hamlet: “the apparel oft proclaims the man”. The original attributes agency to ‘the man’ for his ‘manliness’, and symbolic affordances to the clothes ‘proclaiming’ that state. The translation attributes agency (rather than affordance) to the clothes themselves: they are what makes the man. To this translation Mark Twain pithily adds (1927) “…Naked men have little or no influence on society”, perhaps pointing out its error. He emphasises the simple affordance of clothes to cover nakedness and thus allow a man himself to ‘exert influence’. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 51

child shouts out that the Emperor is naked. At last the town collectively sees through the illusion to the Emperor’s nakedness. The Emperor then realises that there are no clothes, but decides to walk on even more proudly than before. The absent clothes are an extreme example of value’s constitution in the realm of the social. Their value lies not at all in use-value, intrasubjective-symbolic or utilitarian, but only in the intersubjective symbol. Based on the terms set up by the swindlers, ‘seeing’ the clothes symbolises competence. The story speaks of a swindle where something is sold as material despite being immaterial, existing only in the social realm of symbolism. This realm of symbolism serves the illusion by obscuring this lack. Brad makes the child’s realisation, but unlike the Emperor, he does not bluff his way onwards. If the clothing in the story represents Brad’s watch, the absent materiality of the clothes represents the absent indexical manifestation (even materiality) of Brad’s manliness in the watch. The idea of the clothes represents the watch’s symbolic value – a social creation that acts more extremely in the story as an illusion to cover up the absence of real clothes. The illusion of the clothes, if not the watch, is social in the sense that every individual can see through it but will not admit it to anyone else. The swindlers sell to the king the idea of real clothes but give him only symbolic ones, reflecting Brad’s purchase of manliness that got him only a symbol, and one whose use he could not realise at that. Of course the watch is not a total absence as are the Emperor’s clothes. It is material and bears actual use-values. In between these qualities and those that Brad anticipated there is a lot of weaving in the realm of symbolic value. Just as clothes are commonly woven of real thread, human qualities are commonly woven of practices, uses and capabilites as well as symbolism. Brad’s perceived use-value is ersatz not in the sense that it is symbolic per se, but in the sense that this symbolic
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weaving is effaced, and replaced by a concrete relationship of indexicality in ersatz concrete use-value. In this way the bright threads of social meaning associated with manliness, desire and status are woven together into ‘the most magnificent fabrics’ and hung on the hooks that are the properties of the watch. These are heavy fabrics for such small hooks. Embodied practises, like tucking the watch under the sleeve of a full-length wetsuit before diving to a wreck at 50 metres or wearing it to dinner with a person one hopes to seduce, are collapsed into the object. This is certainly a lot for such a tiny band of cogs and springs to contain. Ersatz concrete use-value, as it is defined here, it cannot be ‘realised’ in a process of use, but only in that which is manifested by the possession of an object. Instead it undergoes what may be called disappointment or reinforcement in relation to attempts to realise original use-value. In Brad’s account above it is disappointed with realisation, but in Devon’s it is reinforced as he realises different forms of use-value with the bike. He says that he is “wholly satisfied” with it. He describes his social life before he took up riding as characterised by sitting around drinking beer with his friends. He calls the bike a “social machine”: it allows him and his friends to ride together, energizing and challenging each other.58 He describes the realisation of symbolic use-value with the bike in seeing people’s heads turning in admiration towards him when he stops it at traffic lights. He also realises the bike’s symbolic use-value intersubjectively when


We can perhaps draw a parallel here with Maddie’s motive for her family to play together and interact, to ‘see Mum getting angry’ rather than watching television. There is a direct interaction of dispositions in playing or riding together and a cooperative ‘production’ and ‘consumption’ of shared experience. Though this creativity certainly exists in sitting around talking (and creativity certainly can correlate with the number of beers drunk), or in the sharing of viewing experiences, it is limited to the realm of conversation. Thus the differing extent to which doing things to each other is involved may be a good way to define activity versus passivity in the practises surrounding purchased objects. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 53

he interprets these interpretations and reactions that others make of his bike. He realises it intrasubjectively when he interprets the messages that the bike sends to him. These messages are about how he earned the bike through his achievements in work and the overcoming of what he calls his “dishevelled past”: a childhood with limited consumption and a subsequent struggle to do make it into a job of which he is proud: “Where I've worked, I've applied myself, I've earnt that money and I've made that purchase and now I'm riding it. It's a representation of something I've done for myself, and other people are then appreciating it, or perhaps even envious of it. It's an enriching feeling. I guess it's a greedy sort of feeling in some ways”. The signifier of possession is a key part of Devon’s feeling – signifying that he earned the money that he exchanged for it, which in turn signifies that he overcame challenges and worked hard to obtain sufficient money to make this exchange. It is easy to see how the symbolic interpretations involved in this feeling could be forgotten in favour of the signifier of possession when this possession is among the signifieds of the bike’s symbolic use-value. Here is one possible way in which symbolic use-value is inserted into the signifier of possession to form ersatz-concrete use-value in a form of appropriation. Without recognition that a series of symbolic relationships underpin this feeling, he may feel as though it is the object, or its possession in and of itself that manifests that feeling rather than what that possession represents. There is also ersatz concrete use-value in Devon’s account of the anticipation of the bike59. The intense excitement associated with “just having” the bike is not disappointed but rather reinforced. Here, to borrow a term from Graeber (2005), Devon creatively fetishises the bike by attributing the success of realisation to the

As outlined in Chapter two. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


bike’s agency as a ‘social machine’60. The possession of the bike is never shown to be useless in the absence of realisation but retains its association with the manifestation of value. This describes a cycle of intensfication and the continual construction of ersatz concrete use-value that may fuel motives for the purchase of more bikes. The term ersatz need not necessarily contain a negative judgement: here it is not inferior, nor is it a replacement, but something more like a temporary standin for the original use-value which Devon successfully realises. This reinforcement may enable an even more intense relationship with the bike, indeed Devon describes a ‘love’ for the old one. Unlike Devon’s account are those where ersatz concrete use-value is disappointed. In one account, this happens almost instantaneously. There is no realisation, only the arrival of the signifier of possession in experience61. Maddie relates62 that “I don't like shopping because in the shop... it seems so exciting. In the shop you need it so bad, and then when you get home, you don't. It instantly loses its appeal, you know, almost instantly when you get in the house".


Interestingly, this particular appropriation of the bike’s meaning - as a ‘social machine’ with the agency to help create active social life out of the passive - resonates with me personally and with others to whom I have described it. This may be an example of an appropriation of the bike’s commodity-sign that gains intersubjective currency, contrary to the argument above that appropriations tend not to impact on the commodity-sign. I have many subcultural affinities with Devon, (including a critical approach to advertising, for instance), and this gives onto interesting questions about the way that these intrasubjective appropriations can and cannot form intersubjective symbols and at what level of society. Graeber (2011) charges the ‘creative consumption’ literature with neglecting this fact and assuming that all people are members of subcultures or counter cultures in line with the Mod subculture described by Hebdige (1979) appropriating the symbol of the scooter from the original intentions of the manufacturer. 61 The signifier of possession in Maddie’s account has almost no experience attached to it at the moment that the object loses its appeal. The only experience is of enacting possession in the purchase and in the transportion of the object into the home, but these are largely symbolic processes. In Maddie’s account the loss of appeal occurs with no concrete experience using the object. 62 She relates this as she shows me an outfit that she bought for a wedding, proud of her thrift. It includes a pair of sparkly silver shoes that she does not think she will wear after she moves to the country. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 55

Here is a quite sudden dissonance and disappointment, before any attempt at all to realise a use-value. This account most closely approximates the theories of essentially insatiable desire to consume outlined above. Rather than simply a result of Maddie’s essentially insatiable desire, this can be read as a perception of usevalue. where ersatz concrete dominates to the extent that possession of the object is expected to instantly manifest a given state. This is disappointed at the moment when this does not occur. In other accounts there is a slower disappointment associated with attempts to realise use-value through use. I discussed Mitch’s account of his new bike and the excitement of “Just having it” in Chapter two. He describes how this excitement “kinda frizzles away slowly, and then you kinda realise that you don't really have enough time” (emphasis mine). Mitch recalls that even when he sold the bike he hesitated to do so because he “kinda just liked having it”. After Brad describes his disappointment with the watch, I ask if it happened straight away. He replies “Not really, not straight away. I think after a while just realising that it didn't make me a better person”. He recalls getting rid of it soon after. I ask him what gave him the realisation and he replies “I think maybe the experience of having it on me and it not actually making me, a better person than I already was”. Whereas Mitch describes a sequence whereby ersatz concrete use-value is disappointed before dissonance with the original use-value, Brad describes the opposite. Attempts at realisation foreground the concrete processes of use that were effaced in the imagination of ersatz concrete use-value. They point out that imagination may not have been about actually using the object. Realisation also displaces the dominance of imagination, which was argued in Chapter two to be central to the construction of such ersatz use-value. While realisation dissonance
Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


sends messages about an inflated perception of use-value, the abstract notion of usevalue is shown to be false.

DISSONANCE In contrast to ersatz concrete use-value described above, which can be reinforced or disappointed without any process of realisation, original use-values can be realised or not realised. Like those discussed in Chapter two, participant’s accounts of realisation dissonance are consilient and allow for the conflation between agent, object and the relationship. As was discussed there, it is difficult to separate the blending of agencies of the use-value relationship and thus to determine the locus of agency and value in it. It is difficult63 to determine whether my door is too big, the doorstop is too small or they just the wrong size for each other. In participant accounts of dissonance there are consilient representations that designate either the agent, the object or the relationship as determinative. In being consilient, all of these representations can be true at the same time. They all describe the same situation but none explain it exhaustively. Like imagination, this consilience opens up the possibility of choice64 between the representations, and thus between the options that follow65. It is to these options that I now turn.

This determination is perhaps impossible within personal experience, without a ‘scientific’ approach to the problem that seeks to control these variables or one that seeks knowledge (information that is useful to people other than its producer). This would be with regard to the object in abstraction. 64 I do not assume that this choice is conscious. 65 Some extreme possibilities in these representations illustrate the point: the agency of the game can reach out from the use-value relationship into the call to play chess, or the agency of social relationships can reach inward to determine the relationships of play regardless of the game. The agency of Mitch’s bike can reach out of the practise of bike riding and pull him away from work, into his car and up into the You Yang mountains, or Mitch through his agency could seek exciting fitness without any particular object. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 57

This choice between consilient explanations for dissonance allows cyclical consumption: ongoing attempts at the realisation of use-value with a series of objects. This involves a process of adjustment, both of representations and notions of value. The individual accounts of experience and use presented in this paper form a stark contrast to theories of cyclical consumption focusing solely on the cultural and the symbolic66 such as McCracken’s (1990) account of unattainable meaning invested in consumer objects67. They pull focus to the agency to realise the meanings that McCracken argues are displaced. To borrow the words of Belk Ger and Askegaard, this is the agency to put objects to use as conduits to rather than surrogates (2003: 344) - to bring those meanings to life. Indeed, the juxtaposition of this agency with the aspects of that meaning that are in fact unattainable adds to the dynamic a new dimension of power. For Maddie and Mitch, cyclical consumption involves repeated change of motives and representations with respect to particular objects, while they retain a particular orientation with regard to a use-value, motive, or a category of objects. There is a progressive searching and ‘wringing out’ of use-value through cyclical consumption in these accounts. This value is wrung out of relationships with objects and categories of objects as well as the agents themselves. In order to attempt to realise use-values, people must perceive at higher levels of abstraction that the agent is capable of realising them. If Maddie does not believe that her family or any family is capable of playing together she will not buy board games in pursuit of this use-value. If Mitch does not believe that he can get fit in an


Though methodological limitations must be kept in mind: the displacement of meaning is not a conscious process, meaning that accounts for the most part may only shed light on it obliquely. This is not always the case – a participant in Belk et al relates and explicit awareness of this dynamic even as she enacts it (2003: 341). 67 Discussed in The Introduction. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 58

exciting way he may not buy bikes. As long as one believes in the possibility of a motive or value they can wring it out with whatever means are at their disposal. Given the focus of the paper, these accounts tend to foreground consumer objects as these means. So as long as a person believes that a certain category of objects contains the possibility to realise a use-value, they preserve it as part of a strategy to search for use-value in it and attempt to wring value out of it. An individual object can be rejected while the other members of that category continue to hold out the promise of the use-value that was not realised with the previous one. Mitch retains the idea that he can realise excitement and fitness through bikes even as he realises that he cannot do so with the downhill mountain bike. Maddie retains the idea that her family can play together with board games even as they get sick of Blokus. Consilience is what allows the promise of objects to be maintained. Every message of dissonance with an individual object carries the suggestion of dissonance at higher levels of abstraction. Whenever Maddie’s family get sick of a particular board game there is the suggestion that they are sick of board games more generally, that they cannot play together with commodities, that they are not capable of playing together because of present factors outside of the use-value relationship (age differences, a teenager who needs to be coerced), or that the level of playing together that Maddie expects is too high.68 When Mitch loses motivation to ride his downhill


A concrete example further illustrates the point: when Maddie realises that she cannot play a particular game with Lisa, the dissonance is that realised use-value is lower than perceived value. At a low level of abstraction from the use-value relationship it gives information about the relationship between Lisa and the game. At a higher level of abstraction it gives information about Lisa’s characteristics as a cheater in this particular game. At a still higher level of abstraction is information about the features of this game that are associated with Lisa cheating. All of these representations form part of the representations at higher levels of abstraction: the relationship between the family and the category of board games, the higher level of family’s general ability to play together in their present circumstances, or the valued state of playing together itself. The information arising from the Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 59

mountain bike, the dissonance can suggest that he will not be motivated by other downhill mountain bikes, or any type of bike. It also suggests the possibility that commodities in general are not capable of motivating him given his current circumstances, and that his expectations of excitement in fitness are too high. Representations of dissonance are be ‘fenced in’ or concretised rather than generalised or abstracted. For a time at least, Maddie keeps the dissonance at a level of the particular: the salient69 characteristics are those of a particular board game and her family in relation with it. The image of the family playing together around a board game is thus preserved, and with it the strategy of realising through board games the use-value of playing together. Maddie’s pursuit of the valued state itself is also preserved and with it, perhaps, her hope. Mitch does not generalise the dissonance of the downhill mountain bike, instead he particularises it to an aspect of himself (his ability to go on trips to downhill sites) in relation to downhill mountain bikes (a sub category of bikes). He thus suspends disbelief in his ability to realise the values of excitement and fitness through bikes. He speaks of a motive to buy a road bike because it will be easier to ride than the fixie – more comfortable, “super lightweight” with gears and more cushioning on the handlebars. The power of unrealised abstract use-value in is still present in the form of the expansion of Mitch’s capabilities to ride and may see him into another process of learning through consumption. In addition to this maintenance of hope is a process of adjustment both of representations and strategy. Through dissonance, notions of the agent, the object and
dissonance in use-value is connected with but not necessarily generalised to these levels. It is ‘fenced in’ as a characteristic of the use-value relationship rather than a generalised characteristic. That is, the message is taken as “Lisa cheats at Monopoly” rather than “Lisa cheats at turn based games”, “Lisa cheats at board games” or “Lisa is a cheater”. 69 The word ‘salience’ fits well with the concept of consilience – they share roots in Latin salire – ‘leaping’ (Jewell & Abate 2001). Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 60

the value, all in terms of the use-value, are adjusted. Successive instances of dissonance inform Maddie of the relevant characteristics of her family in relation to the category of board games: their levels of enthusiasm for different subcategories within the category (dice games vs. strategy games for instance). In her account this information informs her purchases of new games. Mitch’s experience of dissonance with the downhill mountain bike informed him of his limitations in terms of the time, energy and motivation involved in initiating and practicing downhill mountain bike riding. This experience can then be generalised to characteristics associated with the broader category of bikes. Mitch recalls purchasing a fixed wheel bike after selling the downhill bike and describes it as much easier to use for commuting: “the fixie is tricky to ride. I kinda find that quite interesting and that keeps me motivated70 to ride the bike as well”. By learning that downhill riding is “not really realistic when you work full time and you get bills and stuff” he has come closer to knowing what is realistic and realisable in terms of his value – how much excitement he can manage in fitness. In the realm of Maddie’s understandings of her family’s dispositions and her interaction with them, this adjustment of representations relates quite poetically to her initial desire for the interaction of family dispositions through play. In her cycle of consumption of board games, she is, in a sense, ‘playing together’ with her representations of her family and their dispositions – she learns about them and their limitations and works with and on them through the cyclical consumption of board games. This learning enabled Maddie to wring all of the value that she could out of the strategy. Similarly, Mitch’s account suggests that he tried through cyclical


It is interesting to note Mitch’s attribution of motivation to his concrete relationship with the bike. This is in contrast with the account described above where he made the same attribution but after vacillated between this and an attribution to the practise as ‘boring’ or ‘losing its appeal’. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 61

consumption to reach as close as he could to the ‘mind-blowing’ experience of downhill riding, to grasp it and keep it in his life. At some point in the sequence of consumption, this concretisation of messages of dissonance can give out to abstraction so that messages of dissonance are no longer fenced in. Maddie says that she hasn’t bought a board game in a while now, suggesting that she may have lost hope in the category. She may have exhausted her efforts with it – wrung out of it all of the value that she possibly could. Some accounts suggest another alternative to moderating motives or losing hope, in a process that could be called dis-consumption.71 Here, the same motive may be pursued without, or with less, purchasing of objects. When Maddie realises dissonance with her teardrop doorstop, she decides to use a piece of wood instead. Speaking of himself and his wife, he recounts that “we don’t really give a crap about most of our stuff”,72 a change that he connects to his experience with the watch, and other experiences like it.


Discussed in Carrier (1997: 356) as a process associated with lowering incomes owing to economic change, originally drawn from Heyman (1991, 176-178 and 1994). Thoough not explicitly related in participant accounts to experiences of dissonance, notions of morality in some participant accounts act as a form of dis-consumption. Devon, despite what could be described as an intensely positive relationship with his downhill mountain bikes, describes his “disinterest in consumerism” arising as he got to know people who were “a little bit spiritual”. He does not like “force-fed advertising” and speaks of his observation that people are compelled by advertising to buy “like they have to have all this crap”. Even when dissonance occurs and Leanne realises that an object is no longer a ‘best you can’ object (ie good enough given current means) and a better or lifetime purchase awaits, she says she will stop herself from purchasing. She says that “first world acquisition syndrome” sickens her – the tendency to continually buy new things, particularly technology. She describes herself as averse to rampant consumerism, and says she thinks that “how we value things versus how we value people… is so out of whack”. She associates this with thinking about her partner living in Afghanistan without the luxuries of the first world. “Maybe it’s an age thing”, she says “I’m less self-obsessed”. 72 We are often reminded that despite our wishes to think the contrary, “social relations are the primary cause of consumption” (e.g. Miller 2012:184). It seems that the value of ‘not giving a crap’ about stuff can also be social - Brad gives an account of sharing it with his wife. Social relations can ‘cause’ disconsumption just as they can cause consumption. Brad illustrates his almost total rejection of what we could call the commodity-sign with a story from his time as a sunglasses salesman “they'd have Prada sunglasses that were more expensive than anything else but I knew that they were just shitty sunglasses”. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 62

Cyclical consumption seen in this light raises questions of how much value groups place through culture into the realm of commodities. It raises questions of cultural commoditisation in the sense of a ‘commodity frontier’ (Hochschild2003) between means to values that are based on commodity consumption and means that are not. In the movement of this frontier is process of commoditisation. I define this as the changes, on an individual, cultural or societal level, whereby the purchase of commodities becomes a non-negotiable part73 of more and more aspects of life.74 The heteronomy suggested by accounts presented here shows us that this process is not necessarily a result of the benefit or necessity (in individual terms at least) of these purchases. It thus opens up space to question the effects of commoditisation, including whether or not it contributes to the well-being of individuals, society or the planet. This paper suggests both the affirmative and the negative. To put it simply, by this definition, commoditisation describes a march of human agency into the realm of commodities. The question then becomes: to what extent is it a forced march, and what lies at the end? In terms of beneficial disconsumption, it becomes ‘would we be better off taking that agency back?’


I must emphasise here that, following Miller (1998), I allow for the possibility that material objects can have the affordances to be used in these processes. I do not assume, as do some definitions of commoditisation (eg Princen Maniates & Conca 2002: 3), that there is a zero-sum or ‘substitution’ relationship in this process whereby, for example, more commodities means less love. 74 Without using either of these words, Bauman (1998: 26) describes a similar process whereby “the roads to self-identity, to a place in society, to life lived in a form recognizable as that of meaningful living, all require daily visits to the market place”. Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption 63

Choose and ending for the story at the beginning: …He’d used the money to buy a new bike. A svelte, fixed-wheel commuting machine with no brakes. You had to pedal backwards to stop it. Sometimes as he plunged through the gridlocked peak hour traffic with the sunrise hitting his face he could almost feel the twigs brushing against him. Still, he thought, he’d be able to cover some serious distance on that road bike he’d seen in the window at the bike shop on the corner. And it was so good to look at, he knew it would turn heads. Or… …The whole debacle with the bike had really given him a shake up. He’d been washing dishes and thinking about the bike the day after he sold it, angry and embarrassed at his stupidity. He realised that it was all just a myth designed by advertising and the consumer society, crammed down our throats to keep us turning – little cogs in the big machine. He decided that he didn’t want any part in it. He put the cash in an old shoebox and called his mate up to go out for a run. Or… …Life just felt flat without the bike, like the contrast had been turned all the way down. The dark bits seemed shallow and the bright bits just seemed dull. He spent most of the cash on a new home entertainment system and finished it off on bills. The only thing he looked forward to was switching on the TV when he got home from work. His girlfriend’s worried looks made him wonder what was the matter, but all he could think of was “nothing”.

I have examined accounts of (mostly) dissatisfied consumption and come up with a slightly wordy group of concepts to describe them. These are ersatz concrete use-value, realisation dissonance, imaginative concretisation and representation consilience. I began the body of the paper with a focus on the anticipation of objects and the imaginative construction of use-value. These accounts suggested that people creatively fill in the gaps in their notions of usevalue in an object by utilizing abstract information. I then argued that this
Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


imagination can create ersatz concrete use-value with this abstract information, and that this can lead to fantastical and inflated perceptions of use-value. Examining the resonances between two participant accounts, relevant institutions of advertising and marketing techniques I outlined the ways in which advertising shapes this process. In Chapter three I examined people’s accounts of realisation dissonance, where they attempted to bring value to life. This included accounts of the disappointment and reinforcement of ersatz concrete use-value, where perceptions of the fantastical power of the possession of objects came into contact with reality. I argued against accounts that naturalise the fetishistic attribution of insatiable desire to consumer objects. I analysed accounts of the realisation of original usevalue and dissonance, and associated the representation consilience of this dissonance with different strategies of cyclical consumption, disconsumption and the loss of hope. In this paper I have shown how empirical engagement with dissatisfied consumption can be a meeting ground and a synthesis for critical and celebratory accounts of consumption outlined in Chapter one. The concept of realisation dissonance in these accounts allows a number of juxtapositions. Firstly, the agential appropriation of the meaning of objects with structurally determined symbols. There is also the juxtaposition of original and ersatz use-value as well as functional and symbolic use-value. The latter pair allow an empirical approach to theories of insatiable consumption (e.g. Campbell 1987, McCracken 1990) that focus on the imagination and the symbolic. Other emergent concepts have also allowed a synthesis between the agential and the structural in individual accounts. Imaginative abstraction is an active and creative process though it draws abstract
Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


from advertising. Representational consilience allows for individual agency in the selection between representations in cyclical consumption even in the presence of the possible heteronomy of unattainable use-value. In the context of the ‘super wicked problem’ of climate change and its links to the consumption of the world’s affluent people, this paper has pointed out potential directions for beneficial dis-consumption. This is particularly in the area of ersatz concrete use-value. The removal of this conception of use-value in consumer objects may prevent a lot of uncontrolled purchases, disappointment and dissonance. Considering its links to advertising, its removal may be a major step towards ‘sane’ consumption with an emphasis on use and a de-emphasis on profit and as its end (Fromm 2006 [1976): 144). In this paper I also proposed that an examination of commoditisation will point to potential directions for beneficial dis-consumption. I suggested that commoditisation constitutes a march of human agency into the realm of commodities. It is clear that this can be the beneficial in some aspects of life, but that in some cases it is not. In some cases it is a forced march. The opposite to this process, which I call de-commoditisation, represents the possibility of taking back from the realm of commodities that human agency which functions better outside of it.

Perhaps we really are the insatiable creatures of the introductory economics textbooks who will always want more than society has to offer us (King et al. 2011: 3), and in this essential nature perhaps we really do face the myth of the Fall from Paradise (Sahlins 2002). Maybe the insatiable forces of human desire really do demand never-ending processions of vegetable peelers and other commodities
Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


purchased from the market. Maybe we really are doomed to lives of perpetual dissatisfaction. The example of the ‘choose your own adventure’ story that encapsulated this paper, however, suggests that we are not doomed to anything at all. Let us keep the question open.

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Rose, G. 1978 The melancholy science: an introduction to the thought of Theodor W. Adorno, Macmillan London. Sahlins, M.D., and Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth. Conference 2002 Waiting for Foucault, still: Prickly Paradigm Press Chicago, IL. Sandlin, J.A., and J.L. Callahan 2009 Deviance, Dissonance, and Détournement Culture jammers use of emotion in consumer resistance. Journal of consumer culture 9(1):79-115. Sanne, C. 2002 Willing consumers--or locked-in? Policies for a sustainable consumption. Ecological Economics 42(1-2):273-287. Sawer, P. 2008 ‘Charlize Theron faces multi-million pound bill from Raymond Weil for wearing Dior watch’. In the Telegraph, London: Telegraph Media Group. Spradley, J.P. 1979 The ethnographic interview, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Sutton, D. 2011 Comments in 'Consumption', D. Graeber, Current Anthropology 52(4):489. Taylor, M.C., E. Saarinen, and M. Virta 1994 Imagologies: media philosophy: Routledge London. Thompson, C.J., W.B. Locander, and H.R. Pollio 1989 Putting consumer experience back into consumer research: The philosophy and method of existential-phenomenology. Journal of consumer research:133-146. Thompson, E.P. 1967 Time, work-discipline, and industrial capitalism. Past & Present (38):56-97. 1978 The poverty of theory & other essays, Merlin Press London. Turner, V. 1987 Betwixt and between: The liminal period in rites of passage in (Eds.) L.C. Mahdi, S. Foster, M. Little, Betwixt and between: Patterns of masculine and feminine initiation, Peru, Illinois, U.S.A, Open Court Publishing Company. Twain, M. 1927 More Maxims of Mark: Priv. print. Wilk, R. 2009 Consuming ourselves to death: The anthropology of consumer culture and climate change, (Eds.) S.A. Crate, M. Nuttall, Anthropology and climate change: from encounters to actions, Left Coast Press.

Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


REPRESENTATIONS The relationship of use-value realisation between an agent and an object is set out in numerical order from 0 to 4, arranged in levels of abstraction from the relationship of use-value between them (2). 0) ‘the Agent’ as a category, in abstraction from use-value relation – any person (Other people who could use the doorstop) 1) The particular agent (Maddie) a) In abstraction from the motive and from the use-value relationship (Maddie is a mother, jogger, technology freak, homeowner, annoyed by slamming doors, capable of figuring things out, especially technology) b) In terms of the motive/value into which the use-value fits. (Maddie has doors with a certain clearance from the ground, floors with particular friction properties, both properties expressed in abstract units) c) In terms of a use-value relationship with the category of objects. (Maddie has experience with door stops and knows how to use them. She has doors that can be ‘doorstopped’. d) In terms of the use value relationship with the object (Maddie’s door clearance and friction in terms of the doorstop rather than abstract units. It is a problem if the door clearance is one and a half doorstops or if the friction coefficient between the door, doorstop and floor is low. Maddie’s ability to figure out how to use the specific doorstop) 2) The use-value relationship between the agent and the particular object. This is separate insofar as a relationship is separate from the independent properties of the related entities. Maddie’s statement that she “couldn’t figure it out” for instance, says nothing of herself or of the doorstop in isolation. It speaks of the relationship between the two and leaves ambiguous the degree to which object or agent is responsible. 3) The particular object (the doorstop) d) In terms of the use value relationship with the agent. (Size and friction relative to Maddie’s doors, Ease of use relative to Maddie’s particular capabilities) c) In terms of categories of objects to which it belongs, in terms of the use-value (The Stoppy ‘teardrop’ doorstop as an instance of doorstops, how well it functions relative to other members) b) In terms of the motive/value into which the use-value fits, in relation with an abstract agent (Maddie’s perception of whether or not it works)
Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


a) In abstraction from particular (d), categorical particular (c) and abstract (b) use-value relationship. (Designed and constructed by people to be used to stop doors, pink or yellow, smells like rubber, a constructed object of metal, plastic, paint, glue, a collection of molecules. Reflected in Maddie’s general feeling about the doorstop – its goodness or badness) 4) ‘the Object’ as category in abstraction from use-value: (any object) Representations are organized in order of their level of abstraction from the use-value relationship. Thus the sequences 0, 1a, 1b, 1c, 1d, 2 and 3a, 3b, 3c, 3d, 2 both become progressively less abstract with regard to the use-value relationship, and end with it (2 representing the idea of its concreteness). Each category or level of abstraction in both of these sequences also encompasses the one following it, up until the concrete usevalue which we are defining as a relationship between the agent or the object and therefore cannot be encompassed by either [ed: A diagram may help here]. Encompassment is an important aspect of abstraction. Any representation of the agent at a low level of abstraction (such as d in agent or object) to the use-value relationship (2) is encompassed in turn by all of the categories of higher abstraction (by a, b and c in the agent or object, and by the general category of agents or objects). As use-value is a relation it is partially but not wholly encompassed both by representations of agents and objects. The more abstract statement that “I don’t have time or energy” (1a) encompasses the statement that “I don’t have the time or energy to go downhill mountain-bike riding for excitement and fitness” (1d). It forms a part of it. This applies to all of the representations in between as well: the statement about mountain-bike riding is encompassed by a statement about the category of bikes. What is obscure is the proportion to which the smaller statement forms each larger statement. How can one know to what extent her time and energy to use a downhill mountain bike reflects her time and energy for other things? How can one know how his ability to realise excitement and fitness reflects the same ability in any person? In addition to the confounding effect of abstraction itself is the relationality of use-value which makes it a dual abstraction. No representation of either the agent or the object captures it. The effect of this is that in some proportion, a representation of a usevalue relationship (including one of realisation dissonance) carries messages to some part of all levels of abstraction in the agent and objects. The movement between levels of abstraction is also important for representations. An upwards movement in the level of abstraction results in the dissolution of the more particular characteristics of the lower level in those of the abstraction. Thus If Maddie moves from “they got sick of that one” to “my son is surly and has to be coerced to play” the representation loses focus on the particulars of the use-value relationship and the characteristics of the family and game that make up that relation in favour of the category of the agent’s characteristics. [Ed but the characteristics of the agent here are more concrete than the use-value relationship] The move upwards in abstraction from a level where there is concrete experience
Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


involves imagination. If I want to relate the characteristics of myself relevant and relating to the use of a doorstop (for example, my experience of being unable to figure it out) on the one hand with the characteristics of myself more generally (my ability to figure things out in general) there must be a process of abstraction. Where I abstract the features in concrete ‘figuring out’ of the doorstop on the one hand with my abstract representation of my abilty to figure things out. I must reduce it to a metric of comparison as the experience is generalised: a creative concretization of a new level of abstraction.

Below is the hierarchy of abstraction in the representations of the relationship of usevalue realisation. Mitch’s account is extended for argument’s sake to illustrate each level. These accounts compete, relate and contradict. They can change over time and with repeated consumption. Each has distinct effects on how a person responds to the dissonance, especially with regard to their consumption. Each representation relates in some way to all of the rest. 0) ‘the Agent’ as a category, in abstraction from use-value relation – any person 1) The particular agent (Mitch) a) In abstraction from the motive/value and from the use-value relationship (I don’t have time) b) In terms of the motive/value (Mitch values and is motivated to have exciting experiences) into which the use-value fits (I don’t have time to have exciting experiences) c) In terms of a use-value relationship with the category of objects (bikes: I don’t have time to have exciting experiences through bike-riding) d) In terms of the use value relationship with the object (I don’t have time to have exciting experiences through bike-riding on this ‘Kona Stab’ downhill mountain bike, my car boot is too small) 2) The use-value relationship between the agent and the particular object (Mitch’s ability to have exciting experiences with the Kona Stab bike) 3) The particular object (the Kona Stab downhill mountain bike) d) In terms of the use value relationship with the agent. (bike’s suspension does not allow particular types of exciting riding. Does not fit well into Mitch’s car) c) In terms of categories of objects to which it belongs, in terms of the usevalue (Does not allow particular types of more realisable excitement in bike riding that other types of bikes, like fixies, offer)
Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


b) In terms of the motive/value into which the use-value fits, in relation with an abstract agent (the shocks are of low quality. Too much total work in terms of abstract measurements (Joules) required to take the bike apart and put it back together again) a) In abstraction from particular (d), categorical particular (c) and abstract (b) use-value relationship. (Good or bad, cool to the touch, smells like grease, is blue, looks good) 4) ‘the Object’ as category in abstraction from use-value: (any object) Some participants recounted another response to dissonance that does not fall into this scheme. That is to turn away from it, by storing, forgetting and avoiding the object.

Consuming Dissonance: the Anticipation, Realisation and Dissatisfaction of Consumption


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