Discourses of Consumption in US-American Culture

[tweetmeme http://www.URL.com%5D Rita Turner of the Language, Literacy, and Culture Program, University of Maryland, has published an outstanding analytical article titled „Discourses of Consumption in US-American Culture.“  The abstract to this recommended work reads:

This paper explores varieties and examples of discourses of consumption, focusing primarily on US-American cultural discourses. The international community has in recent years developed an extremely valuable body of literature examining strategies for facilitating sustainable consumption; economic ramifications of varying consumption behaviors; attitudes and social structures that encourage or discourage sustainable consumption; approaches to consumption as a component of a sustainable or “green” lifestyle; and considerations of consumption practices in relation to inequities between North and South. The United States has made relatively few contributions to this body of literature thus far. But although the U.S. has not been one of the primary sources of academic literature on sustainable consumption, several types of discourses on consumption have become prominent in U.S. popular culture. These types of discourses include examinations of the moral status of consumption; investigations of the environmental or health consequences of modern consumption behaviors; explorations and critiques of green consumerism; and discourses that either construct or critique the commodification of the nonhuman world to produce objects for consumption. Throughout this paper I outline and offer examples of these strains of popular discourse, drawing on a newly-emerging body of U.S. literature and critically analyzing instances of discourse about sustainable consumption in film, television, internet, and print media. I conclude by examining new perspectives on sustainable coexistence that offer transformative possibilities for establishing relationships with the more-than-human world that are not based primarily on consumption.

The introduction to Rita’s paper reads:

Turn on a television in the United States in April 2010, and you may see this McDonalds advertisement: An attractive young woman is sitting at a table, holding a burger. She brings it close to her face and turns it in her hands, looking at it. The expression on her face indicates rapt fascination with the burger. The then camera cuts to a close-up of the woman‟s hands holding the burger, as though we, the audience, are viewing the burger through her eyes. She turns it around and around in her hands. A man‟s voice narrates: “McDonald‟s „Bacon and Cheese Angus Third-Pounder‟; as if it wasn‟t enough to make it with a full third-pound of 100-percent Angus beef, they had the audacity to use a bakery-style bun and crinkle-cut the pickles. There‟s no denying it—that‟s a third strip of bacon. Have they no shame?” The camera cuts back to a view of the woman holding the burger; she bites into the burger and smiles, as the narrator states: “Angus Axiom Number 39: It‟s an embarrassment of riches.” The ad cuts to a close-up view of three of the burgers arranged together, as the narrator says, “The astonishing Angus Third Pounders: All Angus, all McDonald‟s”

In this ad we find a number of messages about consumption. The ad highlights quantity and size. The imagery and language employed in the ad present this new burger as filled with more ingredients—and more meat—than other burgers. Using words like “full third-pound,” “third strip of bacon,” “riches,” and “all Angus,” the ad conveys the idea of abundance, even excess.

There are some, including health advocates, environmental activists, animal rights proponents, and those who are concerned about international equity between North and South, who might in fact find this burger, and the resource use, ethical issues, and consumption patterns in represents, to be shameful and embarrassing. But the ad un-ironically employs words like “audacity” and “astonishing,” and phrases like “have they no shame” and “an embarrassment of riches,” to express pleasure, even glee, at the excess the burger represents.

The narration in the ad seems to voice the thoughts of the woman holding the burger. And by showing the audience a view of the burger through the eyes of the woman and voicing these “thoughts” about the burger as we, through her, examine it closely, the ad positions the audience as the woman. We are told that not only does she feel this way about the burger, but that, since she is an extension of us, we feel this way about the burger, as well.

Through this technique the ad positions us, the audience, as “ideal subjects,” communicating to us the attitudes we are expected to adopt [2]. And through the language used in the ad combined with the evident satisfaction of the woman and the pleased and self-satisfied tone of the voiceover narration, the attitudes we are expected to adopt are made clear: We want more. We enjoy wanting more. We revel in excess, we admire McDonald‟s lack of shame in offering us excess, and we take unabashed pleasure in seizing our opportunity to own and consume such excess.

This message exemplifies one of the most common, and perhaps one of the most dominant, attitudes about consumption present in the popular consciousness of the United States today. But it is not the only attitude. There is, in fact, a complex cultural dialogue taking place in the U.S., which both directly and indirectly explores questions of consumption. Messages about what to consume and why, and conversations about the value and place of consumption, show up in all facets of U.S. culture, through movies, films, music, advertising, popular books, and academic literature. Within the fabric of this ongoing dialogue are the interwoven threads of a number of different discourses and sub-discourses about consumption, which together create an intricate interplay of opposing narratives and competing ideologies about consumption. And in recent years, explorations of the motivations, tensions, and possibilities of sustainable consumption have added new discursive threads to the weave. Below I identity and describe five of these discourses on consumption, examining the contributions of both popular media and scholarly analysis in shaping US-American attitudes toward what and how, and for what purpose, we consume.

Read the full paper in PDF format by clicking here.

Citation:  Turner, R. Discourses of Consumption in US-American Culture. Sustainability 2010, 2, 2279-2301.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by epOxyGreen, Professor Paul. Professor Paul said: Article: Discourses of Consumption in US-American Culture http://bit.ly/9oHoDl #sustainability #green #consumer […]

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